Arkansan called America's oldest

Woman celebrates 116 years

Gertrude Weaver, who turned 116 on Friday, calls the Hogs Thursday at Silver Oaks Health and Rehabilitation in Camden.
Gertrude Weaver, who turned 116 on Friday, calls the Hogs Thursday at Silver Oaks Health and Rehabilitation in Camden.

CAMDEN -- Gertrude Weaver, the daughter of Arkansas sharecroppers, celebrated July Four by becoming the oldest living American.

Now 116, Weaver also is the second-oldest person in the world.

On Friday, the petite and sprightly Weaver offered a fist pump and an exuberant "Yay!" after a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday" -- which included the extra line: "And many more."

As the crowd laughed and cheered, Weaver -- clad entirely in red, white and blue -- raised her arm again.

"Thank you!" she called out in a raspy voice.

A fierce proponent of skin moisturizer and loving thy neighbor, Weaver is a popular resident at Silver Oaks Health and Rehabilitation in Camden.

She receives visits from area schoolchildren, who listen eagerly to historical stories told by a woman who lived them. Family members drop in daily. And the nursing-home staff members are always eager to hear what "Mom Weaver" might say next.

"She's such a delight," Silver Oaks administrator Kathy Langley said Friday, just before the festivities started. "She's a hero and a legend to us. She's ours."

Weaver's age, as well as her designation as the oldest living American, was confirmed recently by the Gerontology Research Group.

The group, founded in 1990, is used by Guinness World Records to determine who qualifies for its "World's Oldest Living People" category.

Weaver caught the attention of the Gerontology Research Group in 2010, two years after Silver Oaks began publicizing her age and birthday celebrations.

Robert Young -- a senior database administrator for the group, as well as a senior consultant for Guinness World Records -- spent the next three years researching Weaver.

In the end, he relied on 1900 U.S. Census Records, U.S. Social Security documents and Weaver's marriage certificate to determine that she was indeed born in 1898.

That makes Weaver a year older than 115-year-old Jeralean Talley of Michigan, another contender for "Oldest Living American." Talley was born in 1899 in Georgia.

The 1900 Census shows that Weaver was born in April 1898 and that she was two years old when the census was taken.

Social Security documents, however, show a birth date of July 4, 1898, and Weaver has always celebrated accordingly, family members say.

Young said he believes the month was changed when Weaver applied for a Social Security number during the agency's early years. She likely was unable to provide a birth record, and thus was assigned a birth date by Social Security administrators, he explained.

These "manufactured" birth dates usually were July 4, Dec. 25 or Jan. 1, Young said, depending on whether the applicant or family favored "patriotic," "Christian" or "neither."

Unfortunately, the agency either lost or destroyed Weaver's original application for a Social Security number when she applied in 1961 for disability, Young said.

He therefore had to rely on other documents, such as Weaver's marriage certificate, to confirm her age. He believes that she likely was born in April 1898, but says family tradition -- combined with Social Security records -- dictate a July 4 celebration.

At Friday's birthday party, Young awarded Weaver a plaque and certificate designating her as the "Oldest Living American."

If Weaver were born in April 1898, she would be just one month younger than the oldest living person in the world: Misao Okawa of Japan. But even using the July birth date, Weaver remains the second-oldest person worldwide, Young said.

After giving Weaver her plaque, Young led the crowd in singing the national anthem. Weaver, clearly elated, sang along. A jaunty red, white and blue bow bobbed atop her gray curls.

From the seat of her wheelchair, Weaver still finds a lot of enjoyment in daily life, Langley said. She eats all of her meals in the dining room and participates each morning in Sittercize Fitness classes.

She also maintains an avid interest in politics and continues to vote in every election.

"She's still pretty sharp," Langley said. "When President Obama was re-elected, I asked her, 'Did you ever think you'd get to vote for an African-American president?' And she said, 'No, much less twice. But he's a good boy.'"

Weaver's greatest wish is to shake Obama's hand, Langley said. She said Weaver also would love to meet the Clintons.

Weaver credits her long life to "treating everybody good." Also, you should eat your own cooking, she advised Friday.

According to the Ouachita-Calhoun Genealogy Society, Weaver was born on the Red River, between Garland City and Lewisville. Her parents were Charles and Ophelia Gaines. They married March 7, 1885, in Lafayette County but were separated by 1900. At that time, Weaver was the youngest of six living children.

On July 17, 1915, Weaver married Gennie Weaver. The couple moved in the early 1930s to Camden, where Gennie Weaver made a living painting and papering houses and Gertrude Weaver found work as a housekeeper.

They had four children, one of whom is still living. Joe Weaver, 93, chatty and spry, attended his mother's birthday celebration Friday.

Also present were Camden Mayor Chris Claybaker and several state lawmakers, who recognized Gertrude with a City of Camden Proclamation and a Senate Citation.

George Smith, pastor of Greater St. Paul Baptist Church in Camden, presented Gertrude with a $116 check.

As he turned to leave, Gertrude raised her hand yet again.

"Give me a kiss," she ordered the startled pastor, much to the crowd's amusement.

And he did.

State Desk on 07/05/2014

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