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Beyond the Centennial

Erin Crowell - January 16th, 2012  

Traverse City resident turns 108 years old on Friday

To say Doris Brackett is a Red Wings fan is a huge understatement. She has kissed the Stanley Cup, ridden the Zamboni at Joe Louis Arena, owns a jersey signed by her favorite player, Dan Cleary, along with a custom jersey with “Brackett 100” stitched on the back – a gift for her 100th birthday.

On Friday, Jan. 20, the Traverse City resident will turn 108 years old. And although her 83-year-old daughter sometimes has to remind her the Wings are playing, Brackett will ceremoniously sit in the armed chair placed inches from the television so she can see and hear every play by her favorite team.


Just two years before Brackett’s birth, the average life expectancy was 49.2 years – meaning she outlived her life expectancy at time of birth by 217%.

According to the most recent statistics by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average life expectancy for someone in the U.S. is 77.9 years, which means that would be like someone who is born today living to the year 2180.

Think of the technology and societal changes a newborn of today will experience tomorrow – or in this case, the day after tomorrow.

Brackett has been around during waves of change and historical moments such as the sinking of the Titanic when she was eight, the first transmission of human voice on radio when she was three, and Prohibition. She was old enough to set down a wine glass when it was enacted, picking it back up after its repeal at the age of 29. She has been around since the invention of teabags and is older than Kellogg’s Cornflakes cereal.

“I probably remember the invention of the automobile best,” said Brackett.

Before this invention, she and her husband, Arthur, would take a horse and buggy out on Old Mission Peninsula to go dancing.

At age 83, Genilee Oberpeul — Brackett’s only child — remembers their first television, while Peggy Ellibee, one of Brackett’s four grandchildren, remembers television’s transition from black & white to color.


Today, the three women do their best to recall hundreds of memories as they sit in Brackett’s apartment, an assisted living facility in Traverse City. It’s difficult for Brackett, and the frustration is evident on her face as her daughter and granddaughter try to help her recall stories, both small and monumental.

“Every day is up and down for her,” said Ellibee, “but then again, don’t we all have those?” All three generations of women share the same sense of humor; and despite that particular day being cloudy — both in memory and outside her window — Brackett’s smile appears when she talks about one of her earliest memories: the family farm, located near Ann Arbor. When she was about 10 years old (the year 1914), Brackett had the job of rounding up the ducks and geese that would run away come nighttime.


She remembers the simple stories with her husband, Arthur, despite losing him over 43 years ago, such as making him go on scavenger hunts for his Christmas presents.

“I once hid a carburetor behind the guest bed,” she laughs.

It’s also hard to forget the big stories, like the time Arthur was laid off from the auto industry during the Great Depression and Brackett was the sole bread winner of the family – a situation practically unheard of during that time.

“I got work when he couldn’t,” she said. “I drove 25 miles everyday to the Wayne County Training School where I was a secretary.”

When the couple moved to Traverse City in the late ’30s, Brackett worked as a bookkeeper for an auto supply business while Arthur found work at the Traverse City State Hospital, where he worked as a carpenter up until his death in 1969.

Some of those stories are being told for the first time. When asked how the couple met, Brackett surprises both her daughter and granddaughter.

“We both lived in the same apartment,” she said.

“Hmm, I never heard that story,” Oberpeul says, raising her eyebrows.

“That ones is new to me, too,” Ellibee confirms.

With over a hundred years of memories, some of Brackett’s stories have yet to be told – making them her own forever.

“I really wish I would have set (my grandmother) down in the earlier years and have her record a message for my children about all her life experiences,” Ellibee says, taking note of her grandmother’s dwindling memory.


Aside from her difficulty hearing and occassional foggy moments, Brackett is surprisingly fit for her age. She takes quick, balanced steps, using only a rolling walker to help her down the hall to the cafeteria for all her meals.

She lived alone on the third level of her Fair Street apartment (sans elevator) up until the age of 100 when a hip replacement forced her to live at her current home (an apartment in its own right, complete with a kitchenette).

A broken elbow and gall bladder surgery are among the few major health issues Brackett has faced over the years. The most dangerous —and perhaps, most remarkable — was surviving breast cancer.

“In the 1960s she went for a routine checkup, and the next day she was having invasive surgery,” said Ellibee. “It actually just dawned on me how serious that type of procedure was back in the ’60s and how she survived even that.”


You can use the digits on your hands to count the years that Brackett is behind the world’s oldest known living person: Besse Cooper, from Monroe, Georgia, who is 115 years old (Fox News reported a woman from Cuba claiming to be 126 years old, but that information has yet to be verified). When asked the secret to her longevity, Cooper said, “I mind my own business. And I don’t eat junk food.”

For Brackett, it’s oatmeal and grapefruit – that, and crossword puzzles with her physical therapist, Jim Harvey, who brings her a long stem rose for each year of her birth. Friday, 108 of them will be delivered.

Scientists and doctors have tried to pinpoint the factors involved, or find the ultimate recipe for longevity. Healthy diet, exercise, good genes, socioeconomic status … these are all factors that may contribute to a long lifespan.

But what allows folks like Doris Brackett and Besse Cooper to live into the stratosphere of old age?

In 2010, a group of scientists from Boston University said they identified a group of genetic variants that can predict exceptional longevity in humans with 77 percent accuracy; however, the report was withdrawn a year later due to “technical errors” in their gene-finding strategy. The study’s leading researchers, Paola Sebstiani and Thomas Perls, say they are anxious to correct those errors and get the findings published soon.

Another predictor of longevity includes walking speed in senior citizens. A study published in the Journal of American Medical Association in January 2011 said faster walking speeds, for ages 65 or older, are associated with living longer. Telomere-measuring (structures on the tips of chromosomes that shorten as people age) is being marketed and sold by companies like Life Length in Brazil as a way to predict life expectancy.

Along with avoiding smoking and drinking, Brackett has lived a very active lifestyle.

She and her husband spent a lot of time fishing, and up until recently, she would garden.

“The fact that she isn’t able to do those things drives her bonkers,” said Ellibee.


Although Brackett has outlived her husband and four siblings, she isn’t alone by any means.

Up until two years ago, she would send a birthday card to everyone in the family, which includes four grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and 12 great-great-grandchildren (the eldest being 15 years old).

For her birthday at the Elks Club, family will gather to celebrate Brackett’s latest post- 100 year with a luncheon. And because of her love of big band music, there just may be some dancing.

“We know how much she loved to dance and when we suggested having music, (my grandmother) said to Chuck, my husband, ‘Do you want to trip the light fantastic with me at my party?’” said Ellibee. “We just looked at each other and laughed. It was just so candid and cute.

“He said, ‘Of course!’” “Trip the light fantastic” is a phrase that essentially means ‘to dance nimbly or lightly’ – and so Doris Brackett continues to do just that through life…skirting around debilitation, limitation and the stigma of numbers until she’s ready to gracefully curtsy.

But until then, the music continues to play on.

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