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Amarillo woman celebrates 108 years, still going strong

March 22, 2012 at 2:44 a.m.

AMARILLO (AP) - At 11 a.m. every Thursday, as she has done for the last 18 years, Aleatha Austin walks into the Carousel Salon in the Fleetwood Shopping Center. She is driven there by grandson and chauffeur Mike "M.J." Stillwagon. Audrey Liles, her stylist, gets her ready for the usual shampoo and set.

"She's just a joy," Liles said. "We all love to see her come in. She'll smile real big and say, 'I'm still here.' She'll tear up sometimes and say, 'Surely, I can't last much longer.'"

Don't bet on it. There will be a birthday party at the Carousel on Thursday, Austin's regular weekly visit. It will be one day after her birthday.

Austin was born during the Roosevelt administration - Theodore's - on March 21, 1904, in Rothville - "that's R-o-t-h-v-i-l-l-e," she said - Mo., making her 108.

She had nine birthday cards Monday on the kitchen bar, including one from a granddaughter, Kristi. It held eight $1 bills, a dollar for each year after turning 100.

"I've had a lot of time to sit and think," she said in her southwest Amarillo home, "and I've had a beautiful life. There's no way else to say it."

A beautiful life and one of the longest in the country. The Gerontology Research Group in Los Angeles estimates about 70,000 people in the United States are at least 100.

For the "supercentenarians," those at least 110, that number dwindles significantly to 75 verified adults worldwide and only 18 in the U.S. Austin is not there yet, but she is getting close.

"We often live as long as we move," said Dr. Walter Bortz, 82, clinical associate professor of medicine at Stanford University's School of Medicine and author of seven books on aging and longevity. "There's a real biological reason for that. Our genes are used to energy. If you don't use it, you lose it.

"That's a maxim for our hearts, our brains, our bones. When you retire from life, life retires from you. This wonderful lady has obviously kept engaged in life."

Aleatha Hutcheson was born in a year when a woman's life expectancy was 47.3 years. Now it's 80.4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She has that beaten by nearly 28 years.

She and Frank Austin married Christmas Eve 1924. He eventually became the business manager for Amarillo Independent School District, coming to Amarillo from Port Arthur in 1953.

The couple could not have children and adopted a daughter, Jean Ann, who lives in Lake Oswego, Ore.

After his retirement, Frank Austin became a tour guide for Continental Trailways and Aleatha went along.

They saw every corner of the U.S. and much in between, on those 28 tours, four a year for seven years. It was during a tour in 1971 that Austin wore her first pants at age 67.

"I was a lady," she said. "I never had worn pants, but when I stepped off the bus my skirt would blow up and I didn't like that."

Frank died in 1977, and Aleatha knew she needed to stay busy.

She took lessons to paint intricate designs on china sets. At age 95, she painted a china service for eight, five in each service. On her 100th birthday, she painted designs on a china coaster for each of the 15 relatives who attended her celebration.

"She's an amazing woman, I'll tell you that much," said Stillwagon, who has lived with her for the last 25 years.

Austin has never resided in an assisted living center.

She gave up her driver's license at 96. Stillwagon takes her out to eat twice a week, to the doctor and to her hair appointments. She had to give up church service at Polk Street United Methodist Church some years ago because of her hearing.

"One of the most important things we can control is the right attitude, of 'being necessary,'" Bortz said. "If you don't feel like you're necessary, why live?"



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