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100 Years Young
THREE LOCAL CENTENARIANS PROVE AGE IS JUST A NUMBER.


BY GUY FIORITA
PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI

April 2018

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more people are living to 100 years of age than ever before. Between 1980 and 2010, the centenarian population grew 65.8 percent to 53,364, with 1,797 of these individuals living in Wisconsin. We sat down with three to discover their secrets to longevity.
 

Maria de Jesus Aviles

“Be satisfied with what you have.

“I was one of six girls, but four of my sisters died when they were infants and the other died as a young adult. I was small and suffered from asthma. I was the weakest of all. To look at me, you would think I would have died first.” Looks can be deceiving. The woman speaking these words is Maria de Jesus Aviles, and she is now 102 years old. 

Aviles was born in the town of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in 1916. Long life did not run in her family. Her father died when she was just 3 years old and her mother when she was 10, so Aviles went to live with an aunt. “She was the sweetest woman in the world as an aunt, but as a stepmother she was very strict,” Aviles remembers. “She told me she would keep (me) in school until she found out I had a boyfriend, and then I would have to stay home and clean the house.”

Her aunt kept good on her threat, and Aviles was soon pulled out of school. And yet, she was determined to complete her education. She worked hard, finished high school at night, and then took a business course and became a bookkeeper. Although she had visited New York several times, Aviles married a man and finally settled there around 1940. Soon after, her son, Miguel, was born, but her marriage ended when her husband moved to Florida.

Still in New York, Aviles found a job with a dressmaker in the garment district. She started as a billing clerk, making $25 a week, but quickly worked her way up to office manager. “I came in one Monday morning and the boss told me that the office manager had called from Florida and said she was not coming back. He said the job was mine, and suddenly I was making $75 a week,” she says. “I couldn’t believe my luck.”

Seeing a need in her church, Aviles attended seminary and was ordained at the age of 65. When her son moved to Milwaukee, she was able to find a position as a pastor at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church on Wisconsin Avenue, where she served until she was 90. In thanks for her service, the church recently named her pastor emerita.

Aviles has called Milwaukee home since 1987, but she’s still not used to the weather. “I don’t like it,” she adds. “Milwaukee has 11 and a half months of winter and just two weeks of summer.” Today she spends her time at the United Community Center on South Ninth Street. “I have been coming (here) for years,” she says. “I love it here. I still like to do puzzles, and I love music. Even today I sit here rocking my head back and forth and moving my legs. I know I look crazy, but what I am doing is singing and dancing in my head.”

Looking back, Aviles says that she never expected to live this long. “I even used to tell my son to be kind and respectful to everyone because I thought he would have to rely on others once I was gone,” she continues. “Really I can’t believe I’ve lived so long. My only advice is to put everything in God’s hands. He knows what is good for us, so be satisfied with what you have.”

 

Bernice Spivek

“I was pretty hot stuff — let me tell you.

“My father always called me his draft dodger baby because if it weren’t for me, he probably would have had to go to war.” The war Bernice Spivek is referring to is World War I. Born in Chicago in 1917, Spivek says that the Great Depression still marks her earliest memories. “It was a horrible time,” she says. “Men were jumping out of windows. We didn’t have enough to eat. My mother would give me 10 cents to buy a nine cent loaf of bread, and that would be our supper.”

World War II would change her situation. Spivek met a man, fell in love, and was soon married. “I was fortunate to marry a man who adored me. Not many people can say that,” she says. Soon after their wedding, however, her husband, who had enlisted in the Army, was sent overseas. “My aunts threw a bridal dinner for me, and then he left and I wept for a long time,” Spivek remembers. It is a sacrifice she would willingly make again. She is obviously — and rightfully — very proud of her husband. “He was one of the first men to arrive at the Dachau prison camp,” she explains. “When he saw the horror, he arranged a funeral and forced the townspeople to dress in their Sunday clothes and come pay their respects. A picture of him at the ceremony now hangs in the Jewish Museum (Milwaukee).”

After the war, Spivek went to work. “I wasn’t very qualified, so I didn’t hold most jobs for a long time,” she says. “But then I became an assistant for the woman who was the first female professor at the University of Chicago. I stayed with her for 15 years.”

A mother of two, Spivek has been living at Ovation Chai Point Senior Living since 2002. She was still driving when she first moved in, and even today she is still fairly self-sufficient. “Well, I do have to have someone put on my shoes and socks, and I have someone that comes in to make me breakfast and clean up,” she says. “I can still cook, but it’s so nice to have others do it for me and I like going down to eat my meals with others.”

Spivek says her secret to long life is that she’s been good to her body. “I did smoke for 20 years, but I quit. And I was never a heavy drinker,” she adds. “My mother suffered from ulcers so she cooked very plain food. She almost never made fried food, and I often wonder if that made a difference.”

What has age taught her? “I am a big believer in the expression, ‘It takes two to tango.’ You have to learn to give and take. If I didn’t like someone, I just stopped being around them. And, above all, don’t lie,” she advises. “You have to have a good memory if you lie. It’s just too exhausting.”

 

Howard Doepke

“I don’t sit on my tail watching TV,” says Milwaukeean Howard Doepke.

Scheduling an interview with Doepke wasn’t easy. He was busy during the first three times I suggested, and when we finally agreed on a time, I was warned I’d have only an hour, as his personal trainer was arriving at 2 p.m. This would not usually be so remarkable, except for the fact that Doepke is 102 years old.

Like so many men of his generation, Doepke, who received a degree in education from UW-Whitewater, was called to war. Thanks to his education, he was assigned to a medical battalion — part of which was called a holding unit, for Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army. Many of the injured came through Doepke’s hands. “My unit got them fixed up enough to continue to fight or to return home,” he recalls. Doepke was the evacuation officer, coordinating the soldiers coming and going, and in total, more than 39,000 men passed through his hands. He received a Bronze Star for his service. “It seemed worthwhile to help these guys get on their way. Many had lost a limb, but were still happy because they were going home,” Doepke adds.

After four years of service, Doepke himself returned home and enrolled in school at UW-Madison. He planned to complete his master’s degree in chemistry and education and met his wife while living in Madison. Soon the couple moved to Wauwatosa, and he began a career as a chemistry and physics teacher and later as a guidance counselor at Wauwatosa East High School. After 32 years of teaching and counseling, he retired in 1980.

Doepke has been living at Alexian Village since 1984. Although his wife passed away in 2015, incredibly he is still in the same independent living facility apartment they moved into more than three decades ago. Aside from his personal trainer, he keeps a busy schedule. He maintains an envious collection of plants, and every Tuesday he works a shift as a volunteer in the gift shop. “I still follow all the local sports teams and read the papers every day,” Doepke says. “Although I don’t like that all the news is negative. Good news is news too.”

He notes that some interesting things come with age. “The other day I was in Walgreens, and the pharmacist asked my age. When I told her, suddenly four people in line behind me began to applaud, and one of them wanted to take a picture with me,” he recalls fondly. “Two years ago, when I celebrated my 100th birthday at the Brewer game, I was introduced to the crowd, and my picture came up on the big screen. Everyone was cheering. It’s funny that just by being alive I have become a bit of a celebrity.”

Doepke attributes his longevity of life to a number of things. “Careful eating,” he says. “I have always kept my weight under control. And I think the fact that I worked with teenagers most of my life helps. Their ideas and energy kept me young. I also think having a positive outlook and being happy is very important. That is why, when I was a guidance counselor, I always told my students to choose a profession they like. You have to have fun, otherwise life is not that great.”

 

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This story ran in the April 2018  issue of: