Annual luncheon honors community nonagenarians and centenarians


Thankful, grateful and blessed – all three were common themes among the nonagenarians and centenarians honored at the annual St. Johns County Council on Aging Centenarians Luncheon, held at The Players Community Senior Center May 18.

This year’s honorees included a group of 17 nonagenarians – people aged 90 to 99 – and five centenarian honorees aged 100 and over. Sponsored by the Ponte Vedra Beach Rotary, the event featured Rotarian and COA Board Member Bruce Barber as master of ceremonies.

Barber opened by mentioning a few facts from 1916 – that World War I was the main news topic and the “it” star of the time was Charlie Chaplin.

The luncheon was served by the Landrum Middle School IMPACT club.

“This is their favorite event all year,” said Cherie Anthony, Landrum Middle School dean of students and IMPACT club sponsor. Of the 12 middle schoolers volunteering for the event, two also volunteered at last year’s luncheon. Their presence was appropriate to another topic of discussion at the luncheon – that of bridging the gap between youth and seniors.

Ponte Vedra Baptist Church Pastor Bob Loy, who delivered the invocation, remarked that the future is in the hands of senior adults and with that comes the responsibility to impart their wisdom on younger generations.

“Tell your story – tell it to younger generations over and over again,” Loy said. “The younger generation, they need to hear what you have to say.”

One by one, the honorees were recognized and given a chance to share their words of wisdom or their secrets to staying young.

Ninety-five-year-old Arne Nielsen disclosed that his secret to staying youthful was singing every morning when he wakes up. He then serenaded the assembly and was given a resolute round of applause for his performance.

His 93-year-old wife, Marilyn Nielsen, was also one of the honorees.

“Arne and I are blessed,” she said. “We’re the only couple here over 90.”

Music has been an important factor in 95-year-old Ruth Conley’s life as well.

“My mother was a professional musician, so I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up with the most wonderful music in the world,” she said, and with that, she also recognized the talent of pianist Don Miniard, who played at the luncheon.

Many of the honorees were not native to Florida, and not all were longtime residents of Ponte Vedra either, but 100-year-old Hana Delli-Gatti drew special recognition for being one of the first residents of the Ponte Vedra Beach retirement community Vicar’s Landing 26 years ago. She recalled watching the community being built.

“I’ve lived in Vicar’s Landing as long as they’ve been there,” she said. “I can remember them tying little red ribbons on the trees that they were going to cut down.”

Fellow centenarian honoree Marion Hayes, 102, owned a vacation home in Ponte Vedra with her husband, and when he died, she decided to remain here. She credits her family, which consists of three children, 10 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren, with keeping her young at heart.

“It’s my family that has kept me going, and I’m delighted that I’m 102 and about to be 103,” Hayes said. “I’m happy, and that’s the reason I keep going.”

Some of the centenarian honorees were well-established at The Players Community Senior Center, such as 102-year-old Minna Barnes. Barnes has lived in Ponte Vedra since 1954.

Another centenarian honoree, Marie Lund, also utilizes the senior center. Over the past couple of years, she has been taking the senior center’s tai chi class with class instructor Dennis Sheils.

The only male centenarian honoree was 100-year-old James Jackson, a World War II veteran who relocated to Ponte Vedra after his wife died and lives with his daughter and her family. Jackson has a very straightforward secret to his endurance.

“They say to me, what’s your secret? It’s no secret,” he said. “You just have to keep breathing!”

St. Johns County Council on Aging Executive Director Becky Yanni was impressed by the seniors’ optimism, expressed by the common themes in how they perceive life.

“It’s inspiring to talk to the people who have reached this kind of milestone,” Yanni said. “They really teach us how to live well – not just how to live long – but how to live well.

“They’re just enjoying life, and that’s what we try to do at Council on Aging – provide opportunities for people to enjoy their life, every day that they have a life.”