The Triple-Digit Club: Meet 5 Centenarians Who Don’t Act Their Age

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Zilpha Nowlin, 101, is a former school-bus driver.Photo: Sally Peterson

A Brooklyn woman named Susannah Mushatt Jones recently became the world’s oldest person, one of just two living souls born in the 19th century. On July 6, she turned 116. Her stock answer to the secret of longevity is delightful and, you’d hope, replicable: She eats four slices of bacon every morning.

Jones today is fragile, her hearing and ­eyesight limited. But the quality of life of ­centenarians — and supercentenarians, those over 110 — varies dramatically, owing to luck, genes, and lifestyle. About a third of 100-year-olds (according to a Danish study) don’t need any help with mobility. In America, about 35 percent live on their own. The photographer Sally Peterson has set out to make portraits of as many active members of the century crew as she can, and — as you’ll see here — both their past and present are enviable.

Interviews by Alexa Tsoulis-Reay


Above: Zilpha Nowlin
101, former school-bus driver
Born: July 14, 1913
Lives in: San Fernando Valley, California

I swim every day! But only if the water is 90 degrees — we have eight solar panels on the roof just for the pool. Until last year I would hand-crank the pool cover off every time. Now I have an electronic one.”


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Milton QuonPhoto: Sally Peterson

Milton Quon
101, artist and animator (on Dumbo and other films)
Born: August 22, 1913
Lives in: Torrance, California

When they screened Fantasia, I was in the theater, and you could hear an ominous noise — it was the first commercial use of surround sound.”

Any life advice?
“A good wife and Chinese food. We have been married 70 years.”


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Donald W. SmithermanPhoto: Sally Peterson

Donald W. Smitherman
101, retired psychologist
Born: April 13, 1914
Lives in: Sun City, Arizona

I do 20 push-ups and 20 sit-ups every morning. I used to play tennis, but I lost sight in one eye, so now I play golf, which is a lot more relaxing.”


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Estelle LevinePhoto: Sally Peterson

Estelle Levine
102, homemaker and former boutique owner
Born: September 11, 1912
Lives in: Silver Spring, Maryland

When I was young, I was too much of a goody-goody. I wanted to be a nurse, and my mother said it’s too hard, too much training. I didn’t defy her. Women mostly make up their own mind these days.”


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Norval L. Gill Photo: Sally Peterson

Norval L. Gill
100, artist and graphic designer
Born: September 16, 1914
Lives in: South Pasadena, California

When I was a child, it was right after World War I — we’d play warfare in the backyard, making little trenches and using matchsticks as soldiers. My mother kept saying, ‘The next draft would have taken your father!’ ”

*This article appears in the July 13, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.