Saturday, June 6, 2009

Active Centenarian Sally Gordon Shows No Signs of Slowing Down

Published in Lincoln 55 Plus, Summer 2009
Copyright 2009 by Lincoln 55 Plus. Used with permission
This is my original, unedited version.

“God didn’t give us a rewind. He just gave us a pause and a fast-forward.”

That’s one of Sally Gordon’s favorite original sayings, and it pretty much characterizes her life. Although she just celebrated her 100th birthday in March, she shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Every day of the Nebraska legislative session, she walks six blocks to the state capitol building and puts in a full-day as the assistant sergeant of arms to the Nebraska State Legislature.

What’s her secret of good health? “I do a lot of walking,” she said. “I haven’t had a car since 1969. When my husband was dying, he asked me to sell our car, because I wasn’t the world’s best driver.”

Until a few years ago, she used to walk five miles from her house to Gateway. She recalls the time she got tired on the way back and stopped at Roper and Sons to rest. “They took me home—not in a hearse,” she said. Another time she got dehydrated and lay down to rest. The next thing she knew, the ambulance and fire truck had come. “They thought I had died.”
Her secret to keeping her trim figure? Eating with chopsticks forces her to eat slowly, which keeps her from overeating. It’s an idiosyncrasy she’s proud of. Her sense of humor and positive attitude pervade everything she does.

“People call me the ‘Queen of Gush” because if I like the way someone looks I tell them,” she said. “You get a compliment and it kind of pumps you up.”

Born in Chicago to Russian immigrant parents, Sally remembers the first time she saw a telephone. She was three years old and she had to stand on a chair in her landlady’s apartment to talk on the newfangled machine. She remembers that day in 1918 when World War I ended. “My father walked across the street and said, ‘Peace on Earth,’” she recalls.

In the 1920s she called herself a flapper, because she wore her hose rolled down, knew how to do the Charleston and the Black Bottom dance, and she had a long cigarette holder. “But I didn’t inhale,” she’s always quick to add.

The 1930s brought the Depression and Dust Bowl. She remembers making her own soap during those difficult years. One summer it got so hot that Lincolnites slept on the lawn of the capitol. “They were doing that all summer long,” she said.

Sally’s never been afraid of hard work. When she was 22 years old, she moved to Lincoln to look for work. She’d won 23 awards for her secretarial skills, including the state championship in shorthand. She walked into the door of Home Savings and Loan in the Sharp Building and asked if they needed a secretary. They hired her on the spot. From then on, even though she married and raised four children, she was always employed. She served as secretary for both Governor Ralph Brooks and Governor Frank Morrison, was the administrative assistant of UNL’s Centennial Education Program, and for the past 26 years has worked as the assistant sergeant of arms for the Nebraska State Legislature. She assists the senators, greets the public and helps maintain order.

Her various positions have given her opportunities many would only dream of. She’s met several celebrities, including Shirley MacLaine, Jack Benny, Gene Kelly and Rock Hudson. She visited Mari Sandoz in her New York City apartment. She stood on the steps of Air Force One and shook hands with President Lyndon Johnson. “He looked right into my eyes like I was the only person in the world,” she recalls.

“I used to work for Mrs. Morrison, and one time I had a message to deliver to her. I went to the mansion, and Charlton Heston was standing in front of the door and I said, “Excuse me.” I thought later, I meet Moses, and what do I do?”

When she was 56 years old, she went to a governors’ conference, where someone took a flattering picture of her. She sent the photo to Hovland-Swanson, a local store specializing in fashion clothing. “I told them, ‘Not all your models have to be young and gorgeous,’” she said. The store hired her as a model five months later. She continued as a model at various places until two years ago.

When she was 92, she decided to go to Europe. On September 10, 2001, she left to join her tour group. If she had left one day later, on September 11, her trip would have been cancelled. While in Europe, she saw the pope, met the associate editor of the National Enquirer (“He was the nicest guy”), and made many friends whom she still corresponds with. (She received 137 birthday cards from all over the world.)

“If I ever go to Europe again, I’d go where the people are and not to the touristy spots,” she said.
In spite of all her adventures, it’s her family that has given her the greatest joy. Her husband, Merle Gordon, was a good man, and she’s proud of her four children, seven granddaughters and six great-grandchildren. Daughter Connie, who died in 2006, was the first woman advertising director for Seagrams and wrote two books; daughter Janet was a Fulbright Scholar and is an artist; son Jim was a candidate for Rhodes Scholar and is a Lincoln attorney; daughter Sandy studied French and Russian. One of her granddaughters has written three books on chess; two are university professors; and one is a doctor.

One of the things she’s learned over the years is to listen to people. “Everyone has a story to tell, and I’ve been amazed at the things I’ve learned.”

Her advice to other seniors? “Keep active. Don’t think that just because you’re over the hill that you’re outdated. After all, to get to the top of the hill, you have to make an effort.”

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