Standing tall after many, many birthdays

Posted: March 21, 2013

She's not really religious. But throughout her long life, Marion Sands says, she's always felt surrounded by angels.

On this evening, she's surrounded by friends. They talk about a woman who belongs to two women's guilds, plays pinochle, and, as she has done for decades, does her own food shopping.

And they say that even when she has no plans to go out, she'll dress to the nines in Elie Tahari suits, accessorized by beaded necklaces and gold rings.

"She's amaaaazing," Delanco, Burlington County, Committeewoman Marlene Jass says. "She's very intelligent . . . very secure . . . and very steady on her feet," a nod to the towering stilettos Sands has worn since age 16.

"I always wanted to be taller," laughs Sands, 5 feet tall with dark eyes, which she says are still keen enough for her to drive her 2002 white Buick Century without glasses - even at her age.

Marion Sands just became a centenarian.

Her platinum hair curled and coiffed as usual, she arrives a little past 7 p.m. last Wednesday at the Zurbrugg Mansion apartments in Delanco, her home for the last two years, to much applause and fanfare from 60 guests assembled to celebrate this milestone.

In a sense, this was also a welcome- home party from her extended family; she'd been in a rehab center for a month, after falling and breaking her hip in the mansion's parking lot. (Doctors are saying it might be time to retire the heels.)

Frank Sinatra plays in the background of the mansion's ornate dining and music rooms, where deviled eggs, sweet-and-sour meatballs, and fruit punch fill the tables. Well-wishers hug and kiss a smiling Sands, who can still hear fine, despite the din.

Delanco resident Barbara Towell, 62, says her friend has more spirit than people half her age. "I look up to her and would love to be like her - if I make it to 100!"

Antonio Walker, property manager of Zurbrugg, agrees. He says Sands' optimistic outlook is enviable. "She's resilient . . . and like a spark plug, with a mind like a steel trap."

Although many people live to be 100 these days - it's soon to become one of the country's fastest-growing populations - few remain healthy enough to live independently. In Sands' case, she can also claim the experience of surviving a devastating gas explosion two years ago that reduced her split-level Cinnaminson house, where she had lived for a half-century, to a pile of rubble.

It was shortly after 9 p.m. on Jan. 11 - she was a young 97 - when Sands arrived home, having driven through a snowstorm after meeting friends at a nearby McDonald's.

She heard a clicking noise while in her rec room and picked up the phone to call for help. "I thought it might be water leaking. But then the whole house blew up around me," she says.

According to news accounts, people as far away as Northeast Philadelphia felt their homes sway from the blast.

Moments later, neighbor Ron Ruppert found her standing in the kitchen, flames hissing from the few walls that were left. Sands, with a bottom row of teeth missing and a broken rib, was still holding her phone, wearing one high-heeled shoe. Her 13-year-old Shih Tzu, Sandra Lee, was cowering in her arms.

"When I saw the fire, I thought, no way is anyone alive in there," Ruppert recalled. "Who survives a gas explosion?"

Which brings us back to the angels. Sands believes those celestial beings must have shielded her on that fateful night.

Sands was born Marion Young, the only child of Etta Perkins Young and Harry Young, on March 13, 1913, in Dover, N.H., during a late-winter blizzard, and she almost didn't make it.

"I was born when my mother was seven months pregnant . . . I was very small . . . a preemie, I guess. Earlier that day, my mother had fallen down the steps," Sands says. "My mother said it had snowed so much that the doctor had to dig a tunnel through the snow to get into the house to deliver me."

Her parents divorced when she was 7, and her mother married Charles Sprague a few years later. Her stepfather was in the textile business, and the threesome lived throughout New England for the next few years.

They eventually settled in Philadelphia, living on 13th Street. She graduated from William Penn High School and took secretarial courses at Strayer Business College (now Strayer University) on Market Street.

She married Harold Sands, the 13th of 15 children, in 1947, after meeting him at a movie theater at Lehigh and Germantown Avenues in Philadelphia. She and a friend had gone to pick up dishes as part of a store's promotion that day. Initially, Sands caught the eye of the manager. But at the last minute, the manager canceled a date with her and sent Harold in his place.

"And I'm glad he did. I liked Harold so much better," Sands says. "We went to Miami for our honeymoon." Harold was so excited that he forgot to pack his suitcase for the trip.

Sands was a bookkeeper for an engineering firm - until she had a disagreement with her boss in the early 1980s.

"He got a bug in his bonnet. I don't like to talk about it," she says frowning. "Today, it would be considered harassment."

Leaving the bookkeeping job was a blessing in disguise, she says, because she was able to open a bookstore in Glassboro. "I always wanted to do it . . . because I love to read mysteries, biographies, and historical novels."

She eventually opened two more shops in Pleasantville and Rancocas Valley, but after a handful of years, she gave them up and retired.

After her husband died in 1995 from cancer, she stayed in the Cinnaminson house they had owned for 35 years - until the explosion, which was traced to a gas leak. She and Harold never had children, and she has no living relatives, except for her godchild's husband, who lives in Jamestown, Pa.

She shrugs when asked the secret to her longevity, saying that she just tries to eat right and exercise.

"I'll be starting a new century next year," Sands says playfully, referring to her 101st birthday. "I'll have to start counting all over again."

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