VC woman stays active at 100
Helen Simmons has maintained an active lifestyle for a century, has a nap everyday and always drinks skim milk. Photo courtesy of Jon Vick
December 05, 2013There are many important numbers in life, like Sweet 16, turning 40, AARP senior status at 50, Medicare at 65. However, the crown jewel of numbers is 100 — not how fast you are traveling through life but how long you have been on this planet while staying healthy and active.
Helen Simmons, a Valley Center homeowner, turns 100 this month, so her friends threw her a party held at the Pauma Valley Country Club. No valet service, however — she drove herself to the event in her own car and was joined by her Significant Other, a kid of 88.
The best part of being 100, says Helen, is that she is independent, stays busy and doesn't use a walker or a cane. She belongs to a social group, plays with her two golden labs, works in her garden, reads lots of books, does her own shopping, and takes herself to the doctor who she visits on a limited basis. She has hearing aids but no reading glasses. She easily renewed her driver's license at 98.
"I enjoy everything I do," says Helen. "My only rule now is if it's hard, I don't do it."
Helen also does her own cooking. She admits she has made the same mistake twice with the two men in her life. Neither one of them cooked. She was married for 43 years and had a "wonderful'' life until her husband passed away in 1981. They built their adobe house after he retired in the 1970s and the overall property spans 40 acres.
Born in Boston but raised in Rochester, N.Y., Helen had a carefree upbringing — it was the Roaring Twenties, after all — and earned a liberal arts degree from the University of Michigan. She cast her first presidential vote for FDR in 1932. The Great Depression was difficult but not unbearable for her family.
Her husband Norwood, whom she married in 1938, was a Cal Tech grad and Ph.D recipient at the University of North Carolina, but like millions of others during the 1930s, he had trouble finding work until he was hired by Kodak. It opted to hire as many Ph.Ds as possible because they were self-motivators and over-achievers. He worked for them his entire life.
Helen, meanwhile, stayed out of the workforce for good reason — she bore five children. All but one was born in California and all are alive today. Son Peter manages her property in Valley Center and one child lives Scotland. Her two sisters are still alive and kicking at ages 101 and 97 in Florida.
There are good genes in her family, to be sure. However, her longevity can also be attributed to no alcohol, no smoking, exercising (horseback riding, boating, swimming, snowboarding). Her drink of choice has always been skim milk. She admits to one other proven life-extender — chocolate.
Her motto now is "just keep going." She says her mind sometimes gets ahead of her feet but that her feet have been behaving lately. She makes plans daily to do something but always takes a nap.
There is not much left on her bucket list. She's floated down the Nile, visited Iran before the Shah was deposed, took a camping trip to Africa, toured Japan, lived on a houseboat in India, visited the Veil of Kashmir, boated in Canada, built and lived in a vacation home in Puerto Vallarta, and the list goes on. It wasn't all about entertainment, however. She was a hospice care giver for 30 years.
Helen spent much of the 1940s, 1950s and part of the 1960s in California because Kodak had assigned her husband there to service the Hollywood film industry. Later in that journey she lived in her Pasadena "dream home'' that she remembers as a mansion, the ultimate in high society.
The Hollywood types were not her favorites, however. She attended the parties as the wife of an executive but didn't like the glitz and glamour. "The parties were dull," she recalled. "All those stars did was talk to each other."
She did remember going to Pickfair, the iconic home of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and talking to "Little Mary," who was often very sad. She remembers Liz Taylor as "a tiny little doll." Frank, as in Sinatra, didn't impress her very much in an appearance at the Hollywood Bowl.
It was impossible not to ask Helen what her Kodak Moment was.
"I was swimming in Crystal Cove near Laguna Beach one day in the early 1940s and I was overcome by the waves and couldn't touch bottom," she recalls. "My life flashed in front of me and I thought of the children that would be without a mother. I swam like crazy and made it to shore."
She has no film from that incident, of course. But the "picture" is vivid in her mind.
At the party she relived many memories through a PowerPoint presentation of film — an event which included a Lord Baltimore chocolate cake, all-pink décor including balloons, a crowd who marveled at her stamina, and the ability to withstand nearly three hours of activity without taking a nap. Especially pleased that she didn't nod off during the festivities was the emcee whose name is at the top of this column.
In the interview that set up the party, Helen was asked if there were any skeletons in her closet, to which she responded: "I closed that door long ago."
Rather profound, I would say. Helen Simmons has mastered the wisdom of thinking mostly of the future and its potential for joy while still relishing the good experiences of the past.