Tragedy punctuated Gladys Gansworth Woodbury’s young adult life.
She married Joseph Woodbury when she was 19, but four years later, she was a widow with three babies. Her father also died within the year.
But she also experienced plenty of joy in her long life. She turned 107 on July 19.
“She’s so precious,” said her younger daughter, Donna Tonemah, 83. “And she’s always been a helper.”
Woodbury has dedicated her life to her family, her church and her community.
She doesn’t talk much anymore, just a few words at a time, but looks decades younger than she is, with few lines creasing her face. Yet there is the proof of her great age in the census of 1930, when she was 20 years old, living with her 25-year-old husband and their 3-month-old son, Joseph.
In the 1940 census, she is living with her mother, Beatrice Johnson Gansworth, also a widow.
Since she turned 100, Gladys Woodbury has lived with Brenda Woodbury, one of her 17 grandchildren.
Gladys Woodbury also has 29 great-grandchildren and 10 great-great-grandchildren. Home health aides assist her around the clock.
Before moving in with her granddaughter, whose house has a ramp to the front door and smooth floors that can be navigated with a walker, she lived with Tonemah and her other daughter, Carolyn Henry, 84.
Gladys Woodbury’s son, Joseph, died of cancer in 1986. His widow, Mary, Brenda’s mother, is several years younger than her sisters-in-law.
“She’s a baby,” joked Tonemah.
Gladys Woodbury’s father, Orsamus Gansworth, died in 1931 when he was just 46 years old.
After her husband died at age 28 just over a year later, Gladys moved back in with her mother at the family farm on Upper Mountain Road. Her mother set aside a field whose crops would support her daughter and children.
Gladys made patterns, then cut and sewed her children’s clothing, and lugged water from a well and washed the family’s clothes by hand.
When her youngest daughter was 8 or 9, Gladys got a job at Moore Business Forms in Niagara Falls, where she worked for decades. She never drove, so she walked to the bus stop or got lifts from fellow workers.
“She was a carbon folder at one time,” said Tonemah, who recalled that her mother once caught an error and alerted her boss, who “couldn’t stop thanking her.”
Gladys Woodbury’s mother lived to be 77. Nobody else in the family has lived to such an extreme old age.
Because of advances in medicine, sanitation and diet, more people are living into their 80s than ever before, said Dr. Ken Garbarino, a geriatrician at Kaleida Health’s Geriatric Center of Western New York. But, he said, “Living beyond 80 and certainly to 100 has more to do with your genes than lifestyle.”
A healthy lifestyle, including not smoking, limiting alcohol use, eating a good diet, getting medical care, establishing a healthy social network and pursuing mental and physical exercise “certainly will help maintain your functional ability and add to your quality of life overall,” he said.
In recent years, several people in Western New York have passed the century mark.
• Joseph DiPofi of Niagara Falls was the oldest Marine veteran when he died in 2004 at age 106.
• Dorothy E. Young, a church organist and choir director, died in Amherst in 2013 at age 107.
• Sister John Maron Abdella was 109 when she died in March in Clarence.
• Salustiano Sanchez-Blazquez of Grand Island was the world’s oldest man for three months before dying at age 112 in 2013.
The current world’s oldest man is Yisrael Kristal of Israel, age 112; the oldest woman is Emma Morano of Italy, age 116.
The oldest person ever, whose life was extensively documented, was Jeanne Calment of France, who lived to be 122 years old before dying in 1997.
Throughout her long life, Woodbury has dedicated herself to community work. She was a founding member of the Tuscarora Parent-Teacher Association in 1938, served as treasurer of the Tuscarora Home Bureau, cooked at the nation’s New Year’s Feast, and was an officer of the Ladies Aid Society of the Tuscarora Baptist Church, which she still attends.
When Tonemah lived in South Dakota and Oklahoma, her mother would fly out to visit her. She enjoyed traveling and visiting, although she was also a bit shy.
When someone pulls out a camera, she usually dips her head with a shy smile.
If Gladys Woodbury has any secrets of longevity, she has never shared them, leaving her family to piece together the reasons for her long life.
“She always just took one day at a time,” said Mary Woodbury. “I’ve never seen her not happy. She never complains, and you never hear her say, ‘I wish I had this or that.’ ”
“She’s just amazing,” said Henry.
As the oldest living member of the Tuscarora Nation, “she is highly respected on the reservation,” said Tonemah. “Anyone who knows her has high regard for her.”
Of course, being 107 is not without its problems. When Carolyn Henry turned 80, her sister looked high and low for an appropriate card that her mother could give her.
“My sister couldn’t find one for a mother to give to her 80-year-old daughter,” said Henry, while her mother and other relatives shared a hearty laugh.