Secret to living to 100? Don’t eat dessert

BY NINA EARNEST | APRIL 07, 2011 7:20 AM

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Eleanor Secrest received 67 cards for her 99th birthday.

Today, she turns 100 — and she wants a few more.

“I want 75 cards,” the outspoken woman said. “I don’t know how many people I’ll get.”

In her 100 years, Secrest has seen a lot come and go in both Johnson and Cedar Counties. She saw electricity replace gas lamps on the family farm, the advent of radio on which she first listened to Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches, and the growing popularity of television. She watched the department stores — Sears & Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and JC Penney — leave downtown Iowa City.

And perhaps more than anything, Secrest saw how education and farm life were forced to intertwine in a rural Iowa county.

Secrest was born in Johnson County on April 7, 1911, the oldest of six children. Even as a young girl, she knew what she wanted to do with her life — she wanted to be a teacher.

And by 18, she was.

Secrest attended the Iowa State Teachers College — now the University of Northern Iowa — to earn a teaching certificate to work in a country school in Johnson County.

Nearly 14,000 similar one-room schools once dotted the state, according to the Iowa State Historical Society. Secrest walked two each miles each way, across fields and over fences, to reach her school when she was a child.

As a teacher, Secrest was in charge of the building’s chores. In the early years, the only source of heat was a potbelly stove. Later, the small spaces had furnaces in the basement.

“You had to have it warm by 8 and start the fire,” Secrest said.

In 1940, she married William Secrest in a double wedding ceremony. The newly married couple lived on a farm — which she still owns — near West Branch. She thought her teaching days were over.

“They frowned on married teachers,” Secrest said.

But eventually, her daughter Patricia needed money for a saxophone when she was in the fourth-grade band. Secrest went back to work, taking Saturday and summer classes to work toward a teaching degree.

Then, at 56, Secrest earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Iowa. The small, rural schools had begun to disappear as they consolidated. Secrest taught for 10 years in Muscatine before retiring from that district in 1976.

When her then-70-year-old husband died, she was “all alone on the farm,” she said. Her daughter returned to live with her for the next 30-some years.

Now, Secrest and her daughter, 60-year-old Patricia, both stay at the Pioneer Care Center in Lone Tree.

Carole Burns, Secrest’s niece, said her aunt still manages the farm’s affairs. She watches the farm stock reports in the morning and decides what to sell and what to buy.

“She makes all those decisions,” Burns said. “She buys and sells and make’s sure there’s money there.”

And Secrest makes sure to keep her mind sharp, even after a century.

Kate Burke, a social worker who assists Secrest, said she is intent on knowing the latest news and current events.

“She credits her long life to keeping up with everything,” Burke said.

But other factors may have been at work.

Secrest said people have asked for her secret to a long life. She tells them that her father always made sure they ate meat and potatoes.

“I never ate much sweet stuff, except on Sundays,” she said. “Even today, I’m apt to leave my dessert on the table.”

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