Secrets of a centenarian

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Chelsea resident Ruth Katz celebrates 100 with a big turnout at the McBurney Y


  • Ruth Katz at her party at the McBurney Y. Photo: Deborah Fenker

  • Birthday cake for Ruth Katz. Photo: Deborah Fenker

  • Katz's daughter says "dancing, vodka and chocolate" are the secrets to her mother's vitality. Photo: Kate Sheehan

Of all the potential difficulties I imagined in interviewing a centenarian, coordinating a time in her busy schedule was not one of them. But Ruth Katz is an exceptional individual, and not only in her striking longevity. She was born the fourth of five siblings (the others were all boys) in Milford, Connecticut on New Year’s Eve 1917. That was a world much different than ours now, most of which she has taken in stride.

Katz, a Chelsea resident, doesn’t use a cellphone, but she has an iPad, and while she admits to not using it very much, she keeps telling herself she’ll start figuring it out tomorrow (or the next day). This seems to be pretty much the only thing she procrastinates on: everything else she is adamant about taking care of on the spot. “At my age,” she says, “you never know what’s going to happen, after all.”

Katz has seen quite a few tomorrows, and more than her share of yesterdays, the last decade of which she has spent in a very cozy and immaculately-kept apartment off Union Square. “My palace,” she states proudly, and with good reason. The walls are a soothing pale blue, a fruitful life’s hall of fame, covered with photographs new and old. There is a portrait of a great-grandchild in a darling red holiday onesie, and classically somber black-and-white images of her parents, yellowing with time. Vacation pictures commemorate adventurous travels to exotic locales, especially for that era, taken with her husband. She had two children, one daughter who lives nearby in New York City, and a son whom she sadly outlived, but left her with twin grandsons, two great grandsons and a great grand-daughter, all of whom live in Baldwin, Long Island where she spent most of the nearly fifty years she shared with her late husband. They married in 1946 in NYC, but moved to Baldwin after a couple of years before returning to the city in 2006.

Still, when asked if she considers herself a New Yorker, where she has spent seventy-plus years, she responded “Well, partially. I think you are where you started from,” making her a Nutmegger at heart. True to that, a favorite activity is watching the UConn women play when one of her grandkids invites her. But only live: the televised version is lost on her (“Just a bunch of people running back and forth”). Her interest in sports originated in her youth. While measuring just 5’1” at her tallest (she’s pretty sure she’s shrunk an inch), Katz loved playing both high school and college ball. In 1935, 5’1” wasn’t so tiny — the tallest girl on her team “was five-six, maybe five-seven,” all of whom would have to have been lucky to be point guards in today’s competitive brackets.

Otherwise, Katz spends her days focused around meet-ups with friends and her daughter, and has found a wonderful social and activity hub in the McBurney Y. She’s not an early riser, but if there’s a class she wants to take there it’s great motivation to get out of bed. Normally, six or seven hours constitutes a good night’s sleep for Katz, and while that may sound a bit skimpy, she finds it adequately restorative — though she’s not at all opposed to an occasional afternoon nap.

I tried to pry a Fountain of Youth elixir out of her, but if she has one, she’s not telling. Her daughter Judith, however, mentioned “dancing, vodka, and chocolate.” She takes astoundingly good care of herself, that’s for sure. She couldn’t provide a favorite neighborhood restaurant, although I had to coordinate our rendezvous around two lunch dates she had scheduled. She mostly cooks at home (“I like to know what I’m eating”), simple dishes of chicken and fish, and a little red meat. She drinks coffee rarely, more frequently tea, and enjoys a small dram of vodka on the rocks (“mostly ice,” she chuckles) before dinner. She even shops for fresh produce at the Union Square Greenmarket, and enjoys that park as well as Washington Square, where she loves taking walks. She certainly stays active, religiously attending Aqua Exercises and Sitting Fit at the Y, and exercise has always been a vital part of her life. Even as a child, her cherished memories include playing hopscotch, baseball and races with neighborhood kids. She attributes activity, both social and physical, as “the beginning of a sturdy individual, a very healthy life.” But she also displays a very relaxed and tolerant sensibility, instrumental in avoiding stress. She tactfully refused to talk politics, certainly a current hotbed of controversy, although she did choose Roosevelt as her favorite president of her lifetime. She found him “inspiring.”

The Y threw her a big party last Tuesday. There was an enormous turnout, as many party-goers as her years, with flowers, gifts, and a beautiful cake from the vaunted bakery Veniero’s, which predates her by over two decades. New York City’s longest-living person reached a laudable 116, and given Ruth’s competitive nature and her vivacity at just 100, she has her eye on the prize.

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