Meet the oldest person in America: Thelma Sutcliffe, who is 114 years old and counting. A farmer's daughter from Omaha, Nebraska, she says not worrying and not having children have been key to her longevity.
Sutcliffe was born Oct. 1, 1906, the year an earthquake leveled San Francisco, President Teddy Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize and Blibber-Blubber, the prototype for bubble gum, was invented. Twenty more men have been president during her lifetime. She was a girl when the flu pandemic erupted in 1918.
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Today, hers is a quiet reign as America's grandest dame. “I am always a lady. Very kind and private,” she told AARP through an intermediary at her senior living facility.
A two-time survivor of breast cancer, Sutcliffe never smoked and occasionally drank, though not in her later years, friends say. She drove until she was 97 and until recent years lived alone in a downtown Omaha high-rise for adults 55 and older.
Her hearing and eyesight are failing, but she remains “very, very, very, very sharp,” says Luella “Lou” Mason, 85, a friend who still resides in the high-rise. They remain close.
Sutcliffe has been a widow for nearly 50 years. Her nearest relative is a 93-year-old nephew, Warren Sorenson, a retired Church of God minister in Arizona. Talking about her, he says: “I really think that genetics is the key. Some people like to think it's because they live good or don't smoke or whatever, but I really think genetics is probably the key factor."
Older sister lived to 106
Sorenson's mother, Marie Kelso, who was Sutcliffe's older sister, died at age 106 in 2011. “The flu went through the assisted living facility, and she was gone in less than a week.” he says.
Sorenson has gotten closer to Sutcliffe because since she turned 90, he and his family have made annual trips to Omaha for her birthday, saying: “She's a very precious person to my wife and I.” COVID-19 restrictions, however, kept them away last October.
As he tells it, she is living a quiet twilight. He calls Sutcliffe “a lady's lady. And a hostess. Wanted to be proper. She wanted to make sure that everyone was taken care of.” He remembered her 100th birthday, when about 300 people turned out for her party at the high-rise, and she greeted them at a reception line, standing the whole time, refusing a chair.
Doesn't want a fuss now
Sutcliffe, who has received the COVID-19 vaccine and avoided the contracting the illness, knows she reigns as the country's oldest supercentenarian, friends say. But she is introverted and “hasn't been interested in being made a fuss of,” says Sister Kathleen Kluthe, 77, a Catholic nun and hospice chaplain who serves Brighton Gardens of Omaha, where Sutcliffe lives.
Centenarians have been growing in number. In 2019 there were about 100,322 people in the U.S. age 100 or older, the Census Bureau says. That's roughly the population of Bend, Oregon. Supercentenarians are at least 110, but the Census Bureau doesn't estimate the size of this age cohort.
Thelma Sutcliffe, at 114, became the oldest person in the U.S. on April 17 upon the death of Hester Ford, who was 115 years old, possibly 116. Official records vary. Ford is featured in this gallery of notable people who died this year.