Jardine: 104, sharp and president, too

It's the stuff of which legends are made:

At a place called Evergreen lives Catherine McKee

They elected her president at age one-hundred three

And before she could even yield the floor

This energetic woman turned one-hundred four.

-- Anonymous

OK, so it wasn't written anonymously. I just figured that when you live so long and remain so sharp, the cookie-cutter "This is Your Life" type of column wouldn't cut it.

McKee might be confined to a wheelchair, the result of a fall back when she was just a kid of 92.

She might have poor vision in one eye and almost none in the other.

And she might struggle to hear. You have to speak loudly to her, as is the case with most centenarians.

But her mind is clear and keen. She recalls events of her life as if they happened yesterday, and she's still adding to her collection.

Recently, the inhabitants of Evergreen Rehabilitation Care Center elected her to preside over their resident council. Out of the 175 residents, 45 or so voted (yeah, 26 percent is a bit low for a presidential election). She got every single vote, shutting out three other candidates.

Hey, experience reigned. So McKee will run the meetings, entertain suggestions and complaints, and represent residents at the center's quarterly policy committee meetings.

More than the novelty of a 104-year-old being president of anything, she sets a standard for voting most elected officials can't match.

"I vote every year," she said. Every year, in fact, since she turned 21 in 1926, six years after the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.

"I've never missed a presidential election," she said, beginning with Herbert Hoover's victory in 1928. In fact, the lifelong Republican is on her 14th president. While living in Arizona (she moved to Modesto in 1992) she worked at polling places on election days.

Unlike far too many California residents and voters, she makes it a point to understand even the spin-driven propositions before casting her votes.

"I read them to her and she makes her decisions," said her son, Patrick McKee of Modesto.

To give 104 years some context, she was born Nov. 18, 1905, in Portland, Ore. That year, Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity, New York Giants' pitcher Christy Mathewson pitched three complete-game shutouts in the World Series and the Russian Revolution began.

Her father owned a business in Portland, but her mother's family decided to move to Los Angeles. Mom and Catherine went with them and lived with her grandmother.

Over the course of 104 years, just about everything cycles through a few times. The recent H1N1 epidemic makes her recall the flu epidemic of 1918, which killed as many as 50 million people worldwide, roughly 34 million more than died during World War I.

"My mother had it," McKee said. "I couldn't stay at our house. The (grandparents) put me at the house next door. There was a big sign in front of the home that said 'Influenza.' We never had any masks, but we had signs."

From her room at the house next door, she could see into her mother's room as doctors attended to her.

Her mother survived and later returned to Oregon to be with McKee's father.

Now, the entrances to Evergreen have signs asking children under 16 not to enter because of H1N1.

McKee married at 26, to a man who worked for Texaco and became an expert in oil lubricants, a job that took them to Arizona.

When he died in 1987, she moved to Indiana to live with a granddaughter, then came to Modesto five years later to be near the couple's only son, Patrick.

After breaking her hip in a fall while living in a retirement community apartment 11 years ago, she went to Evergreen.

"This is a nice place," she said. "On days when I feel sort of sorry for myself, I just go to the door of my room and look out in the hall and see somebody go by who's in worse shape than I am."

She celebrated her 104th birthday Wednesday, just as she has so many others: Son Patrick and his wife, Sharon, took her to dinner. "She had a Manhattan over (ice)," Patrick said.

"Just one," she added.

She still goes to movies, plays bingo, keeps the beat while listening to music and discusses The Bee's front page each day, said Jason Visola, Evergreen's activities director.

"Whatever's there, she'll say what she thinks about it," he said.

Last year, she was one of five Evergreen residents who joined Sheriff's Department officials for their annual Thanksgiving lunch. She got to hit siren buttons and see the helicopter close up.

"Members of Modesto's women's football league come to see her regularly," Visola said.

She also made friends with members of a motorcycle club called the Hooligans. They drop by once in a while, too.

But now, she's got more pressing matters. Being president of the resident council is demanding.

"I open the meetings," she said. She also closes them. Will she run again next year?

With no term limits in place

They must wait and see.

"I'll have to think about that,"

Said President McKee.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or