by Len Lear
Eula Cousins, a resident of Cathedral Village (CV), a retirement community in upper Roxborough, has a birthday coming up on Sept. 14 that not many human beings on earth get to celebrate. Born in 1902 when Theodore Roosevelt was president, Eula will be 110 years old, and she is so full of life that there may be several more birthdays for her to celebrate.
Friends and residents of Cathedral Village will celebrate the event on Sunday, Sept. 16, from 2 to 5 p.m., in CV’s Presser Lounge. According to Jane Lenel, a freelance writer who lives in Cathedral Village, Eula, who has lived at CV for more than 20 years, has “a very clear memory, expresses herself well and has barely a wrinkle on her brow. She also gave a short speech on Martin Luther King’s birthday.”
According to the Gerontology Research Group, which researches the oldest Americans, there are only two Pennsylvania residents who are older than Eula (their cities are not noted) — Anna Henderson, who was 112 on March 5, and Alda Collins, who reached 110 on July 26.
The oldest living American is Besse Cooper, of Georgia, who reached 116 on Aug. 26. She is also the world’s oldest living person. The oldest American who ever lived was Sarah Knauss, of Pennsylvania (1880-1999), who died at 119 years, 97 days. There are currently 18 living “supercentenarians” (110 years or more) in the U.S., not counting Eula, and in the 236-year history of the U.S. there have been approximately 500.
Eula was the only child of John and Mary Jane Taylor, an itinerant minister/lumberjack and dressmaker, respectively, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Her parents convinced her that education was the key to upward mobility, and Mrs. Cousins graduated from Virginia Union University. For several years she taught in all-black schools in North Carolina, where opportunities for African Americans were very limited, to put it mildly.
Eula came to Philadelphia in 1929, but racial discrimination, even in the City of Brotherly Love, prevented her from getting a teaching job. Since she was shut out of the school system, she took courses at Temple University and qualified for a position as a social worker, which became her life’s work.
Mrs. Cousins said recently that a few of her life’s highlights were her 44-year marriage to optometrist, Dr. William Montgomery Cousins, who had a special love for her; a trip to the Holy Land that included walking in the Jordan River and visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; meeting U.S. Ambassador, Dr. Jerome H. Holland, in Sweden (he had been President of Hampton University) and raising money through the NAACP to support Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement.
After World War II, Eula helped organize a group of 100 prominent black and white women who sponsored a concert at the Academy of Music to raise money for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Of the 19 presidents whose administrations she has lived through, Mrs. Cousins was once quoted as saying, “Franklin Roosevelt was my favorite president. When I listened to his fireside chats on the radio, it was as though he was talking to me personally.”
Of course, all people who reach the age of 100 or beyond are asked what they attribute their longevity to. Eula answered the question a while ago this way: “What keeps me so alive and vital? The answer is simple … LOVE! I LOVE people, I LOVE to learn, and I am curious about everything! I eat well, I sleep, I read two to three books a month, and I crochet lap blankets to be donated to people undergoing dialysis.
“I make bookmarks. I take care of my bird, Star! Each day for me is an adventure and a day to be treasured. My nephew and I recently had to make a decision about renewing my passport! It was no easy decision. Finally, reluctantly I told him that maybe my international travel days are over.
“We then made the decision to go to the local DMV to get a photo ID! Funny thing is that the computers there only registered a birthday of 1906, and of course mine is 1902. It caused a glitch in the process, and we were there ALL day! They kept asking me, ‘Are you sure you were born in 1902???’ What an adventure!”
The “Teapotters” is an organization that spreads good cheer to elderly people around the country. They can be found at www.splitcoaststampers.com. In 2009 Eula was brought to their attention by a woman named Lorraine, whose friend, Jackie (last names unknown), had met Eula and became very fond of her.
The Teapotters decided to make Eula’s 109th birthday special by sending her dozens of handmade, colorful cards that Eula could use to decorate her room. They made many cards with a parrot theme because they knew that Eula had a much beloved parrot named Star. The cards wound up being spread all around Eula’s room.
As a result, Eula sent the organization the following letter:
“What a wonderful birthday present … I could not imagine that I would ever receive cards so beautiful and from EVERYWHERE! Each one was a treasure to hold in my hand.
“This birthday was so much fun for me, and I found myself anticipating the mail each day after the first batch of cards arrived. I have shared them with all of my friends here at Cathedral Village and all of the visitors I have had. No one can believe that people I never met would be so kind to recognize me in this way.
“I have been asked to come to the men’s group to share the story … of course everyone here wonders what a blog is! My friend Jackie did her best to explain it to me. I am very interested in the Internet. People explain it all to me, and it is a wonderful thing to be able to have access to so much information so quickly! I am thinking of adding computers to the classes that I take each month!”
And for those people who ask Eula about her longevity and the inevitable end for all of us, she recently said, “If you are wondering about my philosophy on death, read the poem ‘Thanatopsis’ by William Cullen Bryant. The last verse explains it well!”
The last verse of the poem is as follows:
“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”