Bellevue resident Chrystal Harper will celebrate her 109th birthday on Saturday at her home on Main Street in Bellevue. A small group of well-wishers will celebrate her ongoing and very long life.
If Harper makes it to her next birthday, she will be 1 in 7 million, the number of people to live to 110. Harper was born Chrystal Uhrig in 1905, the year that Teddy Roosevelt was sworn in as president, and while the Wright Brothers were still working out the kinks of the first experimental airplanes at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
As Harper approaches the status of “supercentenarian” (age 110-plus), medical researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine’s New England Centenarian Study have become increasingly interested in what secrets she may hold to longevity. Harper’s father, William Uhrig, moved to Idaho in 1887, raising three girls and three boys on a farm near Stanton Crossing, about 15 miles south of Bellevue. As a child, Harper rode about two miles to school, wrapped in quilts in a horse-drawn sled.
Harper, whose mother died in 1910, went to Bellevue only two times each year, to get supplies in the spring and school clothes in the fall. When Indians came through Stanton Crossing on a horse-drawn wagon to pick camas bulbs near Fairfield, Chrystal and her siblings were hidden in a closet by her father.
“I was scared to death of them,” she said in a 2011 interview.
When the family farm sold in 1917, Chrystal moved to Boise where she met Ed Harper. They married and drove in 1924 to Washington and then Southern California, where they opened a dry-cleaning business.
“Laguna Beach was nothing but a big expanse with three houses and one of them was ours,” she said.
The Harpers returned to Bellevue in 1943, after “zoot suits” spoiled the neighborhood in California. Chrystal said she and her husband thought the trendy newcomers were bad company, probably gangsters.
The Harpers had no children. Ed Harper died in 1953. Chrystal was a member of the Mayflower Rebekah Lodge in Bellevue for many years. She did laundry and cleaned at the Christiana Motor Lodge in Ketchum until she retired at age 88.
Today, the Sawtooth Botanical Garden’s workers tend her flower beds. Bellevue Planning Director Craig Eckles brings her a milkshake every Friday. She also eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and likes chips.
Harper is known for having defended the rights of animals, turning in rodeo organizers to the sheriff for mistreating livestock, or confronting people in the street who beat their animals.
“She would take on people much larger than herself and make it her business to protect animals,” said her longtime friend and neighbor Sharon Shrock.
Researchers from the New England Centenarian Study, the largest study of centenarians in the world, contacted Harper recently after reading a story about her in the Idaho Mountain Express. They interviewed her by telephone and took a DNA sample in order to study her mind and body, Shrock said.
They had her count backward from 20 to 1. She got down to nine and then went straight to one.
“I think because she was tired of the test,” Shrock said.
The New England Centenarian Study website states that in 2010 there were about 80,000 people over 100 in the United States, with 85 percent of them women.
“Not all centenarians are alike,” states the study. “They vary widely in years of education (no years to post-graduate), socioeconomic status (very poor to very rich), religion, ethnicity and patterns of diet (strictly vegetarian to extremely rich in saturated fats).”
The study states that very old people tend to be slim, extroverted and have particular genetic traits.
“A preliminary study suggests that centenarians are better able to handle stress than the majority of people.”
The study found that about 15 percent of centenarians had no significant changes in their thinking abilities, “which disproved the expectation by many that all centenarians would be demented. We also discovered that Alzheimer’s disease was not inevitable.”