How many people alive today can claim to have met Rudolph Valentino in the early 1900s or played the piano for the silent movies? How many 100-year-olds have you met that can walk alone to meals and activities, sing songs and tell great jokes about their life stories?
Stena Merrill of Petaluma can. She is one of 14 Sonoma County residents between 105 and 110 years of age, and is on her way to joining the country’s 70,000+ centenarians who are known as “super centenarians,” 110 and over.
Merrill was born Stena Warren on Dec. 7, 1905, in Fillmore, Utah, the state’s first territorial capitol. Her parents Kristina and Charles Warren came from England and Denmark. Though both parents passed away from illness when she was a baby, she and her older sisters Loraine and Virginia were raised by their mother’s parents in a large three-story house with five bedrooms.
Stena adored growing up in this small town, and her favorite childhood activities were playing dolls, roller skating around town on sidewalks, and playing the piano for the silent movies.
“I remember when the movies had no talking,” she says. “I played piano by ear and got to see all the movies for free!” She also points to her favorite hobby, saying, “I was in seventh heaven on roller skates.”
She attended primary school in Filmore, then went to high school in Grantsville, and loved the subject of history. She also worked as a babysitter and “helped out” with the local telephone company.
A highlight of her young life was meeting Rudolf Valentino when he was performing a show at the great Salt Air Pavilion near Salt Lake City, the “Coney Island of the West.” “He was short but good looking,” she said of the star of her favorite movie, “The Sheik.”
She also loved ballroom dancing as a young lady, especially the Rag Time Two-Step, and looked up to dance pioneers Irene and Vernon Castle. She remembers playing bridge and golf and making hats out of linen with cherries on the top.
In the 1920s, she moved to Pocatello, Idaho, to take care of her aunt’s children while the woman taught school. There she met her first husband, Von Robbins, whom she liked instantly. He played golf and basketball, which she also enjoyed watching. They “went together” for a year, then were married and had three children, Boyd, Arlene and Charles. After her first husband passed away, she met and married Rufus Merrill, with whom she shared many happy years.
Her two older children, Boyd and Arlene, have passed away, but Boyd’s son Mike now lives in Salt Lake City with his daughter Alexandra. Boyd’s son Robert resides in Denver and has a son, Sean. Stena’s son Charles lives in Petaluma with his wife Gay. They have one son, Jeff, who lives in Orange County with his wife Sharre and their sons Brian and John. Stena is most proud of her family, and of being a grandmother.
On Dec. 7, 1941, when Stena was 36, she sat in her Idaho home by the radio during the attack on Pearl Harbor. “I remember hearing the news and thought… this horrible thing had to happen on MY birthday of ALL days,” she says.
A few years ago she came to Petaluma to visit her son and his family, and decided to stay at Our House Residential Care Home. “I just came to visit, but my heart is still in Idaho,” she says. “Oh I just LOVED the Coeur d’Alene area, with the mountains, lakes, and trees!”
When asked about her secret for longevity, she said, “I haven’t lived an exciting life, but a good one, and I believe in always doing your best.” With a lifelong commitment to family, trying new things and healthy habits, she does just that. Her sense of humor reveals itself when she adds, “I didn’t murder anyone or steal anything!”
Stena’s life also points to the other proven factors of longevity, such as family members who have lived into their 80s; a healthy diet, which is now vegetarian; and involvement in activities, such as Elder Active Programs, where she gets involved with arts and crafts, theme programs and mentally stimulating activities. She also takes plenty of time for rest and reflection, and says that being with family keeps her going.
For her birthday, Stena had a special party with friends and staff at Our House, focusing on the highlights of her life and the music, events and traditions of the year she was born. The birthday queen also celebrated with her family, enjoyed a special cake with a toast in her honor and received a letter from President Obama congratulating her.
By Diana Gruhl, MSW. She is president of Elder Active Programs, which provides life enrichment and memory stimulation programs for seniors, as well as trainings for caregivers and administrators. She can be reached at (707) 481-5959 or elderactiveprograms.com.