Pauline Piper, 105, poses at Sweet Brook Care Centers with a certificate recognizing her position as the town's oldest resident. A ceremony was held on March 2 presenting her with the Boston Post Cane.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Pauline Piper has reached a milestone: 105.
A resident of Sweet Brook Care Centers, the centenarian skipped her regular exercise class recently to be presented with the town's Boston Post Cane by Brian O'Grady, director of the Council on Aging, to recognize her as Williamstown's oldest resident.
The tradition of the Boston Post Cane was also born 105 years ago, when the now defunct Boston Post's Publisher Edwin A. Grozier forwarded a promotional gold-headed ebony cane to the boards of selectmen in hundreds of New England towns, requesting they be presented to the town's oldest male resident. In 1930, the honor was extended to include women.
The Williamstown cane went missing for years until being rediscovered a decade ago. As O'Grady tells it, he was new in his job when the late Hazel Burdick asked, "Where's the cane?"
"I had no idea what this thing was," he said recently. "I started doing research. ... There were all sorts of leads, some ending in the cemetery, and some people felt it was out at Sweet Brook in a closet, but everything was a dead end."
In March 2001, O'Grady wrote an article in his monthly newsletter asking everyone to look for the missing cane.
"The Transcript, Advocate and I think the Eagle highlighted the search and that's when Gloria Piner went looking in the attic and found the cane. She had been friends with Henry Hart, the last known holder," said O'Grady.
Hart died in 1985 at age 100.
Now, the cane is kept in a display case at the Harper Center and removed only when it is time to give it ceremonially to the oldest citizen in Williamstown.
"Everyone reacts differently when presented with the cane," said O'Grady. "One woman burst into tears, another woman held it up and pumped it in the air. A man used it like a baseball bat."
It has been reported that some recipients did not want to return the cane, but the current honoree was not surprised nor upset that she had to give it back.
"I told her about that (beforehand)," said Piper's daughter, Margy O'Connor of Williamstown. "She was amused and quite pleased to have her picture with the cane. And she is proud of the certificate with her name that she was given. It is from the Council on Aging and the Board of Selectman."
Piper attributes her longevity to her "prairie genes." At the age of 2, her mother rode in a wagon from the Dakotas to Michigan and she grew up on a farm in Wichita, Kans.
When Piper was a schoolgirl, she knitted wash cloths for soldiers in World War I; as a young woman, she graduated from Wichita College, now Wichita University, in 1929.
"It was quite an accomplishment at that time," O'Connor remarked. "Mother said women didn't go to work then, as they would be taking a job away from a man."
Marriage brought Piper to Buffalo, N.Y., then the couple moved to Baltimore, where they started a family.
"My mom and I made crabapple jelly when I was 8. We had a crabapple tree in front of the house," O'Connor recalled. "She was an adventurous cook, and taught me to cook and encouraged me to cook alone. I was only 9 when I made cookies alone."
As O'Connor remembers it, her mother was active in the community, working on Parent-Teacher Association projects, tutoring remedial reading, teaching Sunday school and helping with the Brownies.
When Piper moved to Sweetwood Retirement Community in 2001, she was a widow who wanted to live near her daughter. After her "knees gave out" and she could no longer walk, she became a resident of Sweet Brook.
"Mrs. Piper comes to all the programs," said Cynthia Ellison, Sweet Brook's activity director. "Because Mrs. Piper is hearing challenged, I put her right in front of me in exercise class so she can follow my motions."
Both O'Connor and Ellison mentioned that Piper loves music, especially The Aladdins, a local singing group that performs at Sweet Brook.
There have been many changes in the world - some incredible, some insignificant - in Piper's 105 years.
"She has gone from horse-drawn carriages to jet travel, and she finds the advances in transportation amazing," said O'Connor. "My parents loved to travel, and when my father retired they traveled internationally."
Now mementos of Piper's trips with her husband sit on the windowsill in her room at Sweet Brook.
"It's a very well-dressed window sill," O'Connor said. "There are pictures of her children and grandchildren, and keepsakes. We change the keepsakes depending on the season - now there's a Mexican pottery cat and a brass dancing god from India, which is a symbol of the circle of life."
At Sweet Brook, Piper inspires other residents to "live life" despite challenges they face.
"And on March 2, in Mrs. Piper's honor, we had our exercise class later in the day than usual," Ellison said. "She is a sweet lady with a sweet smile."
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