As friends, dignitaries and fellow nursing home residents looked on, the world’s oldest living person turned 115 Monday at the Western Convalescent Hospital in Los Angeles. Gertrude Baines, born April 6, 1894, in Shellman, Georgia, to parents who were born into slavery, celebrated her natal day wearing a red hat and resting in a reclining bed covered with a blanket.
She was smiling and laughing as children sang “Happy Birthday” and friends read letters of recognition from several local politicians, California’s Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. Diane Feinstein, even the office of President Barack Obama. Having lived through eras when women were refused the vote, people of color couldn’t swim in public pools and Jim Crow rules were in effect, Baines, said L.A. City Councilman Bernard Parks at her celebration, is “one of those unsung heroes who are overlooked. That’s what we appreciate about her. It’s quite an achievement.”
As for reaching this landmark, “She said she didn’t care what kind of cake or ice cream we got her, that she would eat anything. She’s a sweet lady,” hospital administrator Emma Camanag tolds PEOPLE, as several other well-wishers complimented the supercentarian and lauded her longevity. Later, guests shared a birthday carrot cake and Dodger dogs.
Self-Sufficient Until 105
During the course of her life, Baines was married to Sam Conly, with whom, in 1909, she had a daughter, Annabelle – who as a child died of typhoid fever. One of Gertrude’s earliest memories is of taking a horse and buggy to church with her mother, Amelia, and her father, Jordan Baines, who had been a judge. Before moving west, she lived in Connecticut and Ohio, where she was employed as a cafeteria worker. Until 10 years ago she lived by herself in California, before moving into the convalescent home.
These days, she’s confined to a wheelchair and rests in her room surrounded by letters of proclamation marking her achievement as well as photos of leaders who include President Obama. All recognize Baines as the oldest person in her state, her country – and in the entire world, a milestone she achieved Jan. 2 after the death of a Portuguese woman, Maria de Jesus.
Likes Sweets and Bacon
Not one to make a big deal of her stature, Baines enjoys life’s simple pleasures, such as extra crispy bacon and sweets, as well as daily viewings of The Price Is Right and Jerry Springer.
Last fall, she cast her vote for Obama in the general election. The only other time she voted was back in 1960, for President John F. Kennedy.
When she feels up to it, she attends Pastor Warren Smith s church service at the hospital. “She hasn’t been herself in recent weeks,” says Smith. (Baines was recently hospitalized and treated for dehydration.) “But she enjoys the service and nods to the music.”
Pressed for her secret to longevity, Baines begs off the question. “She prefers not to have the title [of world’s oldest],” says her nurse, Cynthia Thompson, who has looked after her for nine years and quotes Baines as saying, “Of all the people in the world, why do I have to be the one? I didn’t ask for this.”