Arkansan believed world's oldest person

Actual birthday a mystery, but Camden woman, 116, appears year clear of field

On the day Gertrude Weaver is said to have been born, the United States had just won a major victory in the Spanish-American War, and you could see a matinee show at a theater for 25 cents.

On Wednesday, Weaver had her nails painted pink. Although the Arkansas native enjoys her regular manicures, this one was special: At 116, she's now believed to be the oldest person in the world.

"We did a little bit extra today," said Mary Bennett, who is married to Weaver's grandson. "She looks so pretty."

With the death Wednesday morning of 117-year-old Misao Okawa of Osaka, Japan, previously named the world's oldest living person, the title is expected to move now to Weaver and back to U.S. soil, where it will likely remain for a while. The second- and third-oldest people in the world, both women, are Jeralean Talley, 115, of Michigan and Susannah Mushatt Jones, also 115, of New York.

The daughter of Arkansas sharecroppers, Weaver moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s and lived in California for years before returning to Arkansas in the 1970s, Bennett said. Today, she lives in a retirement home in Camden.

"She is just a sweet person, and she always says she has three keys to life: loving God, working hard, and loving everybody and treating everyone the same," Bennett said.

Up until last year, she enjoyed "wheelchair dances" at the senior home. She still is known today to call the Hogs, the University of Arkansas tradition that the nursing home staff taught her.

Robert Young, who tracks supercentenarians -- people over the age of 110 -- for the Los Angeles-based Gerentology Research Group, said he met Weaver last year when he flew to Arkansas to celebrate her birthday and present her with a plaque that recognized her as the oldest living American. She was "very sweet," he said.

"Not everybody is sugar and spice and everything nice at that age," Young said. "A year ago, she was still strong. I was definitely impressed."

Although she has become weaker since July, Bennett said, Weaver attends church services every Sunday at the retirement home with her 93-year-old son, Joe Weaver, and spends time talking with her family. Joe, the last surviving of her four children, turns 94 on Tuesday.

Official records say Gertrude Weaver was born July 4, 1898, but no one knows for sure exactly how old she is, Young said.

Birth records didn't exist in Arkansas when Weaver was born, he said, and census records from 1900 state Weaver was born in April 1898. But official Social Security records put her birth date at July 4, 1898. Young said that at that time, it was common for the Social Security agency to assign a person a birth date if the person couldn't provide a birth certificate; Jan. 1, July 4 and Dec. 25 were popular choices.

A marriage certificate from 1915 stated only Weaver's age -- 17 years old for a June wedding, a stronger case for an April birthday.

"Even then, is it April 1 or April 30? This information is lost in the sand of time," Young said.

Either way, as long as Weaver's title as oldest living person isn't contested, she's still more than a year older than the next-oldest person. She's also, according to the Gerentology Research Group database, the seventh-oldest person ever to have lived. The oldest person ever was Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died at the age of 122 years, 164 days.

It may take awhile before Guinness World Records, which previously recognized Okawa as the world's oldest living person, certifies Weaver. Sometimes, it takes extra time in case others around the globe want to challenge the standing.

In an email, Guinness World Records said it was "saddened" to learn of Okawa's passing and is "currently investigating potential successors" for title of oldest person living.

For now, though, Bennett said her husband's grandmother has enjoyed dozens of visits from family members, the media and political officials.

State Desk on 04/04/2015

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