by Barbara Sherf
What’s the secret to living to be 100 years old? Mt. Airy resident Evelyn Summers chalks it up to three things: good genes, an optimistic outlook and learning new subjects to keep the mind engaged.
“I think you have to be optimistic and a social person instead of an introverted pessimist,” said the one-time professional pianist who continues to play and give piano lessons in her historic 100-year-old condo. “I think too that it helps to keep up with technology. I have a smartphone and laptop and text and use an online calendar. Not embracing technology is isolating in a way.”
Summers (her maiden name was Wahlgren, which, in Swedish, means “green woods”), who turned 100 on Sept. 14, has seen many history-making technological changes, as well as huge strides in the treatment of women in the U.S.
“In middle school I got straight As, but in physics class the teacher gave me a B. My counselor was furious and went back to the teacher, who said ‘I couldn’t give a girl a better grade than a boy,’” said Summers, who grew up in Oklahoma City even before the first radio news program was broadcast in the U.S. (Aug. 31, 1920, by station 8MK in Detroit, Michigan.)
The family lived through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, during which her father served as a weatherman for the government.
“I knew what happened in tornadoes. The dirt was red, and you would see this pink cloud coming. It was dreadful. My father would go out to survey the damage and come back with stories of a piano sitting in a tree and the like. The only way to get to sleep at night was to put a large handkerchief with perfume on it over my nose.”
Summers shared that the John Steinbeck novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” and ensuing movie were very accurate in their depictions of what happened to their community.
“The Okies had plowed incorrectly, pulling out native grass so that the wheat that was planted would not take hold. The farmers piled in their jalopies and headed out to California to pan for gold,” said Summers, who attended Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Missouri to study piano and organ.
Summers then received a fellowship to Oberlin College to pursue a Master’s degree in piano with a minor in organ music. It was at Oberlin that she met her future husband, who was studying law. While both of her parents were in the local Methodist church choir, it was an aunt who suggested to her parents that young Evelyn had a musical gift.
“My mother’s sister had received a fellowship to go to Juilliard. She would come home every summer and while listening to me play, she decided I had talent. If I had a choice, I would have become a social worker,” said Summers, who in a way combined her interests. “My first job was at the Toledo Art Museum, where I held classes on Saturday mornings to prepare about 250 children for the visits by very fine orchestras who came and gave children’s concerts. I taught the children what to listen for.”
Her husband of 63 years, Clyde Summers, practiced and taught labor law, and the family went on sabbatical every seven years, traveling to Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Japan and England.
“I had five babies in six years, and any country we went to, I learned the language, whether it was Swedish, German, French, Japanese or Spanish. Having children has been the hardest job of all,” said Summers, who prides herself on relearning a subject every year. One year she picked up and relearned Trigonometry, and this year she is relearning Spanish.
Her husband eventually landed at Yale, where he taught for 19 years before landing in 1975 at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching until he was 85. He died in 2010 at the age of 91.
For 35 years, Summers taught English as a Second Language at the International House in Philadelphia, while serving as a piano instructor for hundreds of willing students. These days she teaches in an effort to give back to members of the Northwest Village Network, a group comprised of senior citizens from Northwest Philadelphia who help each other remain in their homes by offering rides, help with errands and companionship.
“At 98, I gave up driving to satisfy my children even though the AAA said my reflexes were fine. I began to use Northwest Village volunteers and thought that in order to give back, I should offer piano classes. I now have three students. I love teaching and found over the years that you have to love what you are doing.”
As for the current political climate, Summers noted that she witnessed discrimination against African Americans and Native Americans and was discriminated against herself due to her gender.
“I think we go through phases in this country of taking one step forward and a half-step back. Overall, though, we’ve made enormous strides. My desire is to live until Trump knows the difference between truth and lies, and I know that may be a very long time,” she chuckled as her little Yorkshire Terrier seemed to bark on cue in agreement.
“I walk a mile a day, push myself to be around other people and to keep on learning. I don’t want to turn into a couch potato. In retirement, I got into stamp collecting, sewing quilts and continuing to work on what I call my ‘life force.’ I’ve had an amazing life, and I’m eager to see what’s next.”
Barbara Sherf, a freelance writer in Flourtown, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org