Love lifted her to age 110

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and his wife, TV anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah, greet Eula Cousins at her birthday party at Cathedral Village. TOM GRALISH / Staff
U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and his wife, TV anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah, greet Eula Cousins at her birthday party at Cathedral Village. TOM GRALISH / Staff

"It's joyous! It's joyous!" she said at her party.

Posted: September 18, 2012

Eula Cousins doesn't wear glasses, has no arthritis and nary a wrinkle on her round, brown face.

You'd never know the extraordinary "Miss Cousins," as just about everyone at Cathedral Village, the continuing care retirement community in Upper Roxborough, calls her, just turned 110. It's a milestone she attributes not to healthy living, which she practiced, or good genes, which she obviously enjoys, but to what is at once the simplest and most complicated reason of all:

Love.

Let her tell it:

"My family was Christian and they were loving and they loved me. I was brought up in an atmosphere of love within the home. There was no friction, fighting or loud talk or drinking."

There was enough love in the air on Sunday at Cathedral Village to launch Cousins on her way to 111, as 120 friends and family from as far away as Georgia gathered to celebrate her life with music, balloons, wine, punch, and crabmeat hors d'oeuvres befitting a country club soiree.

Cousins seemed a bit overwhelmed by it all – the letter from President and Mrs. Obama, the proclamations read by very important people, the 10-minute film tribute titled A Long Life Well Lived, and the bouquets of roses, her favorite flower.

"Oh, my goodness, it takes my breath away," said Cousins, who wore a pink carnation in her hair and a beige skirt, sweater, and scarf. "It's joyous! It's joyous!"

Despite her considerable longevity, Cousins is by no means the oldest American; that would be Besse Cooper of Monroe, Ga., who turned 116 on Aug. 26. Nor is she the oldest Pennsylvanian; that would be 112-year-old Anna Henderson, whose hometown could not be confirmed.

Cousins is, however, the oldest resident ever at Cathedral Village, her home for the last 21 years. And, if her numbers can be verified, she'll join an elite group worldwide.

According to the Gerontology Research Group, which is based at UCLA and tracks "supercentenarians," a new term that describes those 110 and older, there are just 70 such people on the planet whose identities and ages have been verified.

Verification - usually through birth or baptismal certificates, marriage licenses, and sometimes photo IDs - is necessary, believe it or not, because of the possibility of fraud.

"People present documents that are not their own. It's the natural human desire to be famous and, it turns out, in our culture, you can get fame from being old," said gerontologist L. Stephen Coles, cofounder and executive director of the research group.

The current list of supercentenarians includes 67 women and three men from Japan, the U.S., Europe, Canada, Australia, and Barbados. Cousins is not - yet - among them, but Coles wants to learn more about her.

Ask away!

Cousins is quite chatty and very clear; she's also slightly hard of hearing, a relatively recent development. In an hour-plus interview, she spoke of her "glorious" 44-year marriage to the late William Montgomery Cousins, one of Philadelphia's first black optometrists, and their beautiful home and rose garden in West Philadelphia; her 55-year career as a social worker; her Baptist faith; and her travels to France, Italy, Belgium, and the Holy Land, where she swam in the Dead Sea and planted trees near King Solomon's mines.

"I have been so blessed," said Cousins, who was born in Elizabeth City, N.C., on Sept. 14, 1902, when Teddy Roosevelt was president, and came to Philadelphia in 1929 hoping to continue the teaching career she'd begun back home.

But she was African American, and she learned quickly that racism and segregation were just as prevalent in Northern cities as they were in the South. So she took classes at Temple University and became a social worker for the Pennsylvania Society to Protect Children, Philadelphia Municipal Court, and the Young Men's Hebrew Association.

G. Daniel Jones, senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church of Germantown, where Cousins is a longtime parishioner, explains: "White social workers didn't want to be bothered with the black community. Eula came through a segregated society and yet she was not overcome by it. She overcame it.

"With her outlook, with her willingness to bite the bullet, she had internal resources that she used and she still uses to this day. She is a very delightful person," he said.

Steven Cousins, Cousins' great-nephew and a director at the Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta, describes his great-aunt as "a glass-is-half-full kind of person. She has a very positive outlook, despite seeing the world as it really is. She sees a reason to celebrate and be happy regardless of circumstances," he said.

At Sunday's party, Steven sat next to "Aunt Eula," who was in a wheelchair, greeting a line of guests that stayed 15 to 20 deep for a half-hour. Beside him was his son Elliot, 21, a bodybuilder and college junior majoring in physical education, who hadn't seen his great-great-aunt for eight years.

"The first thing she said to me was, 'You're really meaty,' " Elliot said with a big smile.

Besides her direct talk and sense of humor, friends at the party described a fully engaged woman who enjoys nonfiction books, costume jewelry, crocheting blankets for dialysis patients, opera, and politics. She actively campaigned to elect Obama in 2008, the year she turned 106.

"I never expected to live this long. No!" Cousins said. "I have enough intelligence to know that you live in different stages and you adjust. This is the late stage."

At that moment, 110 years reverted to 10 and this extremely senior citizen became an imp, laughing before she even got the words out.

"But how late can you be?" Cousins cracked.


Celebrating her birthday, 110-year-old Eula Cousins talks about her long life, well-lived. www.philly.com/cousins


Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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