October 21, 2010

USA: Melinda's long life ends peacefully

NEW BERN,  North Carolina /  Sun Journal / October 21, 2010

Melinda was Supercentenarian 

By Laura Oleniacz
Sun Journal Staff

She was said to be a pleasant, proud lady who loved the Lord, fried chicken, and collard greens, who worked as a beautician in a shop on Queen Street and who encouraged her children and grandchildren to get up and go forward.

Aroused from a nap by talk of fried chicken and cornbread, Melinda Overton Harris wakes up during her 113th birthday celebration to look at the assortment of flowers, gifts and honorary plaques bestowed upon her by friends, family and community members. Liz Bowles/Sun Journal

At age 114, Melinda Overton Harris would have been one of the oldest living person in the nation, according to an Atlanta, Ga.,-based gerontology researcher. In the absence of records to prove that claim, she was recognized as the oldest known living person in the state until her recent death.

Harris died peacefully in her sleep at the Good Shepherd Home for the Aged on West Street, said Leola Blount, a manager and administrator at the home where Harris lived for 20 years.

Her birthday has been celebrated each year there since she turned 100, Blount said. Her birthday celebration this year was attended by local politicians and dignitaries, and lawmakers including Gov. Bev Perdue sent letters of recognition.

A memorial service is being planned for her at the home next week for the home’s residents.

“She’s special, and she’s lived that long, we felt she should be honored,” Blount said.

Ethel Coward, a Brooklyn, N.Y. resident and the only living sibling of Harris’ three children, said her mother was a pleasant, sweet lady.

“We loved her so much, and we miss her so much,” she said.

Blount described Harris as a sweet, religious, and proud lady who even in her later years, would put on jewelry, a belt around her waist and lipstick in the morning. Although she was not able to walk at the time of her death, Blount said she stayed alert.

“Her number came up and He plucked her out of the garden,” Blount said. “She was truly blessed to have lived that long.”

Robert Young, senior claims researcher for the Los Angeles-based Gerontology Research Group and a senior gerontology consultant for Guinness World Records, said that as of yet, no records have been found proving Harris’ claim of age at 114 years.

However, Young said there was a 1910 U.S. Census record found listing her at age 12 in 1910, making her 112, and the oldest known living person in North Carolina before her death.

The next oldest known living person in the state is a woman named Ruth Oliver, who would have turned 112 this month, according to Young.

The record for the longest-living person in the state was set by Maggie Barnes in 1998. Barnes lived to be 115 years and 319 days old, Young said in an e-mail.

Young said that 1910 census listing was “problematic,” as family members’ ages are often misreported. Other records, such as a birth certificate or family Bible entry, or the 1900 U.S. Census, have not been found. He said it was likely that her family was missed by the 1900 census.

“The bottom line: her age claim is problematic and messy, but she was the oldest-known living resident of North Carolina,” Young wrote in an e-mail. “There’s always a possibility they could do some research after death, too.”

There are a group of factors contributing to longevity, Young said. He said centenarians and supercentenarians tend to have maintained a healthy body weight, 90 percent are female, and most are physically active until age 100 or 105 years. Many have a strong mental constitution.

“It’s like rolling the dice, and coming up with all 12,” Young said. “It can’t just be one secret, it has to be a lot of factors put together.”

Blount said Harris’ secret was her faith in God. “She would always say, ‘prayer changes things,’ ” she said. “She prayed all the time.”

Laura Oleniacz
E-Mail: loleniacz@freedomenc.com

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