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Meet the centenarians of SLO County

The Villages in San Luis Obispo is home to several centenarians or near-centenarians, including, from left: Gomer Cool, 102; Temple Herron, 104; Gertrude Winkenbach, 100; and seated, from left, Lena Lerza, 99; Vareene Langenback, 99; Toni Balcaen, 99; and Dorothy Sylvester, 102.
The Villages in San Luis Obispo is home to several centenarians or near-centenarians, including, from left: Gomer Cool, 102; Temple Herron, 104; Gertrude Winkenbach, 100; and seated, from left, Lena Lerza, 99; Vareene Langenback, 99; Toni Balcaen, 99; and Dorothy Sylvester, 102. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Lona Timmons opens a booklet on the U.S. presidents and points to a picture of the 26th commander-in-chief. “I was born when he was president,” she says.

That would be Theodore Roosevelt, whose two-term presidency ended in 1909, when Timmons was 2.

Like many centenarians — those who live to 100 or older — Timmons didn’t expect such longevity. But, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, centenarians are the fastest growing group of older Americans.

Estimates on the number of centenarians living in the United States range from 70,000 to 100,000 — a significant spike from the 38,300 recorded in 1990.

More current centenarian figures for San Luis Obispo County will be available this spring.

But at the last census, from 2000, there were 43 residents older than 100, including 31 women.

While healthy habits increase one’s chances of living long, experts now suggest that about 20 to 30 percent of a person’s longevity relates to genetics. Even then, the odds of anyone living to 100 are slim.

“Sometimes when I lay there in bed, I wonder if I’ll be able to get up in the morning,” said Temple Herron, 104, of San Luis Obispo.

Both of Herron’s parents lived to be around 90. And he helped his chances of a long life by giving up smoking at age 50. Still, he can’t say exactly how he has managed to live so long.

“I’ll be damned if I know,” he said. “It’s really something.”

When The Tribune put a call out for centenarians, about 20 were recommended. Here are four of them and their stories.

Lona Timmons, 103, Templeton

As Lona Timmons stood on a swinging bridge over the Little Red River, her body suddenly began to shake.

It was the day after Christmas, 1928, in Heber Springs, Ark., and Timmons was preparing to be married on the middle of that bridge.

“I was like, ‘Gee — am I that nervous?’ ” recalled Timmons, 103, with a laugh.As it turns out, the shaking was actually caused by a truck at the end of the bridge. Not that she needed to worry: She and Calvin would be married for nearly 60 years.

“We had a good life together,” she said. “I wish he were here.”

In her apartment, a black-and-white photo of the couple hangs over a couch, near a photo of the bridge where their union became official.

Now in Templeton, Timmons’ memories are sharp — and pleasant. She laughs often when she reminisces, as she did when recalling their nightmarish 1929 trek from Arkansas to California.

“Oh, it was a long drive,” Timmons said. “We had 20-some-odd flats in that car.”In California, Calvin initially got a job working at a grocery store for 12 cents an hour, then later became an aviation mechanic. Meanwhile, Lona, who grew up working on a farm, worked for 14 years as an electronic technician with Lockheed Corporation.

Not everyone in her family lived long. Her paternal grandfather, father and a brother all died at 54.

“My mother died when she was 92, and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll never be that old,’ ” said Timmons, a widow since 1984.

But she has easily outlived her mother and is going strong. Timmons, who drove until she was nearly 100, reads mysteries, does word puzzles and writes poetry — all while living on her own in a retirement community.

“I’m enjoying life,” she said.

Timmons — who called her 80-year-old neighbors “the kids around here” — has two children, now 75 and 72.

“Can you imagine having a child 75?” she said, smiling.

Temple Herron, 104, San Luis Obispo

On Sept. 16, 1942, Temple Herron was walking around the USS Wasp with more than $100 in his pocket — loot won from the previous night’s card game. But at around 2:45 p.m., the shipman’s good fortune threatened to run out.

When a Japanese submarine shot torpedoes into the aircraft carrier, Herron and the nearly 2,000 others on the Wasp scrambled for safety amid a series of explosions.

“It was on fire from stem to stern,” recalled Herron, San Luis Obispo’s oldest living veteran and the oldest to survive the USS Wasp. “I saved my life twice that day.”

With fire and smoke spreading — nearly 200 of his fellow shipmen died in the attack — eventually Herron found himself floating in the ocean.

“There was so much oil in the water,” he said.

After a couple of hours in the water, a destroyer came, and another shipman grabbed him by the arm and pulled the 35-year-old petty officer to safety.

“I thought he was going to pull it out of the socket,” said Herron, who earned eight medals, including a Purple Heart.

Born in Arkansas, Herron was one of six children. Economic hard times — his dad made just 18 cents an hour operating a street car — persuaded him to join the Navy at 17. In the Navy, where he would serve for 22 years, Herron became an aircraft mechanic. While briefly working in Washington, D.C., he met future wife Letty, now 97, who printed money for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

After the war, the couple moved to California, where Herron worked for McDonnell Douglas and NASA. After he retired 40 years ago, he and his wife traveled to Mexico, Canada and Alaska. Now they live in the Villages in San Luis Obispo.

While he stopped smoking more than 50 years ago, he acknowledges, “I still take a beer every now and then.”

He’s mentally sharp — he drove a car until he was 102 — and he keeps up with current events. Yet, Herron said he doesn’t make long-term plans.

“I just say I’m going to live to 105,” he said.

Roy Tolbert, 104, Morro Bay

Roy Tolbert recited his first poem when he was 5 years old. Ninety-nine years later, he’s still sharing poetry — and occasionally a joke or two.

“I like to tell stories,” said Tolbert, 104, of Morro Bay.

Having survived two children, two wives and all seven siblings, Tolbert illustrates that living longer is a combination of the genetic lottery and lifestyle choices.

“My mother died when I was about 10 or 11,” he said. (She had pancreatic cancer.) “My father lived to be 84.”

His oldest brother had a heart attack at 21, but then lived to see 90. Another brother survived a house fire and lived to 89.

“I had two brothers who smoked,” he said. “They didn’t make it to 70.”

An active lifestyle helped Tolbert become the only member of his family to reach 100. He played softball until he was 70. And even though he suffered a heart attack at 90, he continued to farm until he was 98, the same year he quit driving.

“When the doctor recommended heart surgery, I said, ‘Do you recommend heart surgery for a 90-year-old man?’ And he said, ‘Ordinarily, no. But you’re not an ordinary 90-year-old man.’ ”As a young man, Tolbert had a rough time farming cotton in Arkansas.

“The boll weevil had hit,” Tolbert said. “We kept trying for two or three years. But in 1936, there come a drought. We didn’t make anything, and I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.”

After his brother-in-law suggested they move to California, he and his wife, Doris, moved to California with their three children. (Two others would be born Californians.) Eventually, they wound up in Visalia, where Tolbert grew cotton, alfalfa and later, walnuts.

Even after his first wife died in 1975 and his second passed away in 1995, Tolbert continued to lead a full life.

“I had no idea I’d go to 100,” he admits.

Today, he splits his time between daughters in Morro Bay and Visalia. In both places, he recites poems to local churches.

While he knows he won’t live forever, Tolbert doesn’t fear mortality.

“You know it’s gonna happen,” he said. “You just wait and do the best until it comes.”

Dorothy Sylvester, 102, San Luis Obispo

During his performance at Cal Poly in September, comedian Bill Cosby gave a nod to a member of the audience who had just turned 102.

“He said, ‘Is Dorothy here?’ ” said Dorothy Sylvester, who lives at the Villages in San Luis Obispo retirement center. “And I said, ‘I’m right here!’ ”

Despite getting praise from one of America’s most beloved entertainers — and applause for her longevity — Sylvester talked more about the show than her moment in the spotlight.

“I was so impressed by the fact that he didn’t use notes,” Sylvester said of Cosby’s routine.

The Cosby mention wasn’t her first brush with fame. As a child in Southern California, she grew up with Jack LaLanne, the fitness guru and current Morro Bay resident who’s now 96 himself and who at the time was friends with her brother.

“Jack LaLanne was kind of a puny little kid,” she said with a smile.

Born in 1908, Sylvester went to Santa Ana Junior College while living with her grandmother and eventually became a clerk/typist for the state. When a doctor recommended she take a break, Sylvester arranged for a trip to Camp High Sierra in Mammoth Lakes. But the man she hired to drive her there would prove more memorable than the trip itself.

“He was strictly business,” she assured. “No funny stuff.”

Yet, it couldn’t have all been work. That driver, Harry Sylvester, would eventually become her husband. And the two would be married 70 years before Harry, just shy of 90, passed away in 1996.

“I had a good husband,” she said. “He understood things.”

After spending most of her life in Montebello, in Los Angeles County, Sylvester moved to San Luis Obispo to be closer to her daughter. Still active, she pieces together jigsaw puzzles and recently took part in the Memory Walk with the help of a walker, to honor her friends with Alzheimer’s. A genealogy enthusiast for 30 years, she once traveled across the country with her daughter to find more information about her family.

“My great-grandmother came to California in a covered wagon,” said Sylvester, who has traced her direct descendants to the pilgrims.

While she’s the oldest woman at the Villages, she quickly realized she wasn’t the only centenarian there when she met Gomer Cool.

“I found out he was six months older than me,” she said.

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