Still Hungry for Knowledge at 105, Gertrude Palmer Is One for the Books
There were some days," concedes Gertrude Palmer, "when I hated school. I remember one boy, Ben Oges, who used to sit behind me and pull my braids. There were times I was ready to just kick him."
Of course, that was back in the English resort town of Southend-on-Sea—and it was a century ago, in the year 1889. That may well have been the last time that Gertrude Palmer, age 105, let anyone dampen her zest for learning. Today she has shed the braids, but she's still answering the school bell—this time at the Lemon Grove Community Center near her San Diego home. The California Consortium for Adult Education recently honored the pixieish great-great-grandmother of four as the state's Senior Adult Student of the Year. "Try to learn something new every day," says Palmer. "It keeps you young."
For Palmer, 19th-century history is as fresh as the evening news. She was born in 1883, the year Karl Marx and Édouard Manet died. She remembers troops marching and bands blaring during Queen Victoria's 1897 Diamond Jubilee. ("She was a lovely queen, you know.") The daughter of a river-barge operator and a nurse, Gertrude married Frank Palmer in 1905. He was a promising young man who had mastered a newfangled technology called electricity. The couple emigrated to Canada in 1913, then fled the cold for California, where Frank signed on with the Los Angeles electric-rail system. "Mother was always taking us on excursions by train," says one of Gertrude's five children, Frank "Sid" Palmer, 64. "She showed us just about every inch of the California coast." Her husband died 20 years ago, and Gertrude now lives in a residential home with five "younger girls."
Ironically, Palmer just completed a course called Effective Living for Seniors, a guide to the pitfalls of aging. Hardly essential, perhaps, for a woman who, at 105, doesn't need glasses, has her own teeth, walks without a cane and still loves a pint of Guinness. Says instructor Donna Pasanen, 49: "Gertrude's so rich in life experience that she teaches me more than I teach her."
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