ST. PETERSBURG — Ruth Sims may not know the secret behind how or why she’s lived to be a healthy 105 years old, but her friends and family have their theories.
“I wasn’t planning on it. I’m just happy to still be around,” Sims said as she blew out the candles on her birthday cake Sunday at a party thrown by her fellow church members at First Unity of St. Petersburg.
Those closest to her know her extra years weren’t won by living a quiet life. Sims, born Sept. 28, 1908, was a nurse in World War II and is the oldest female veteran of the war alive today. She was born and raised in Peking, China, where her parents were Presbyterian missionaries, and after the war worked as a public health nurse, painter and high school art teacher across the United States
Though she now lives in an assisted living facility in St. Petersburg and uses a wheelchair to get around, her friends say her brain is still as sharp as it’s ever been. When asked what she remembers about her life, she replies with a simple, “I remember everything.”
“She still loves to read and study, and if we go to the doctor and they try to talk to me about her health she’ll get very upset and tell them, ‘Talk to me about me,’” said Sims’ 66-year-old adopted daughter, Karen Sims. “Her memory is amazing. She remembers growing up in China, and can tell you everything that went on during the war, like how they weren’t allowed to hang laundry on the line because planes flying overhead may see it and figure out there were people working there.”
Her love of learning has been a life-long passion, Karen Sims said. Before the war, Sims was accepted to attend Oxford and Cambridge universities in England, but her father decided she should study at the College of Wooster in Ohio so she could become an American. It was in Ohio that she became a nurse and met her husband, whom she was married to for more than 50 years before he died at 79.
Growing up, Karen Sims remembers her mother spending every summer furthering her education at Syracuse or other nearby universities. She completed complex oil paintings of the Teton mountains, Yosemite falls or other locations they would visit on their yearly camping trips by memory or by looking at postcards of the destinations, Karen Sims said.
But for her adopted son Bruce Sims, 66, it’s her “fearlessness” that keeps his mother young.
During a childhood picnic at Yellowstone, Bruce Sims remembers his mother scaring away a large bear and her two cubs by running after it and rattling a paper bag, simply because, “she didn’t want them to eat our food,” he said.
“All of her stories are true,” Bruce Simms said. “She was even alive when the Wright brothers flew the first airplane. Her father was a surgeon and actually treated the last emperor of China, and she’ll joke that if the last emperor had died she may have never been born.”
It’s that joy of life and sense of adventure that most impresses her fellow parishioners. Sunday was spent swapping stories of how Ruth Sims would march down the isle with her walker in time to the music, lead discussions in study groups and prayer classes, play kickball in her wheelchair with her 5-year-old great, great, great grandson Adrian or employ teams of people at her assisted living home to tend to the garden and bird feeder outside her room. Ruth bought a computer when she was 99 and still keeps in touch with hundreds of people from around the world, said her best friend Juanita Christy. She didn’t let her age stop her from picking up her new “boyfriend,” who is only in his 80’s, donating to charities and simply enjoying her life, Christy said.
Ruth Sims and Christy are working on documenting her many tales, though the project is five years in the making because Ruth has yet to deem it “perfect.” The Bay Pines Veteran center in St. Petersburg, which identified Ruth as the oldest living female WWII veteran, has also created a documentary about Ruth’s life and service in WWII.
She doesn’t have any practical advice on living to be 105, but when it comes to being happy Ruth said she’s learned the secret.
“During the war, life was scary when there were bombs dropping all around and you’re treating horrible injuries, but we had to press on and remember that someday our troubles would end,” Ruth Sims said. “You have to remember to try to treat others as you would want them to treat you if you want a happy life. That’s the most important lesson you can learn.”