Four Utah centenarians share advice collected over more than 100 years

Jan 29, 2023, 10:20 PM | Updated: 10:40 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — For Rose Tonti, 101, comfort is a crowded table.

Since starting a new life in Utah more than 70 years ago, she’s stuck to her recipes, rolling out dough for cookies to share over coffee with family and longtime friends.

“I love to be together. I want friends with me,” Tonti expressed. “I like to talk. That’s my favorite.”

Tonti’s kitchen table in Ogden is a long way from her mountainside hometown in Italy, San Pietro Avellana, reduced to rubble in World War II. Now she prays for Ukraine, she said, where she sees her own experience in today’s images of war.

Rose Tonti chats with friends and family over lunch. (KSL-TV)

Tonti is one of four Utah centenarians who sat down with KSL in recent weeks to share how they find peace of mind. For Utahns feeling anxious about the state of the world, each had a bit of advice to impart, with some seeing echoes of the nation’s history in today’s challenges.

“We are in a bad, bad world,” Tonti said. “We have to pray. It’s all we have to do.”

She’s long retired from Utah Tailoring Mills, where she fashioned intricate fabric roses adorning dresses worn by starlets and rodeo queens far beyond the state’s borders. Now, she can be found standing over the stove with assistance from her daughter Mary Miller.

“I make everything,” Tonti explained, including lasagna, gnocchi, bread, meatballs, and sauce from scratch, she said. “I want to keep busy, busy, busy.”

A Life in Journals

In Bountiful, King Green also lives independently.

“It gets awful lonely at times when you’re living alone,” he said.

But not for long. A lifetime of journals organized neatly in his living room help remind him of the company he’s kept for over ten decades, he said, and helps fill in any gaps in his memory.

He began recording events big and small and illustrating them in small drawings as a teenager.

Green’s journals transport him to earlier chapters of his life. One day in January, he flipped through the pages of one volume and landed on a drawing of a young woman named Louise, whom he’d met at Lagoon Amusement Park. The two later wed and had four children.

King Green showing off his horse-riding outfit. (KSL-TV)

“We were together 73 years and very much in love,” he said.

A Salt Lake City native, Green was the only one in his family to hold down a job in the Great Depression and he’s kept busy ever since.

He grew up riding horses and has kept up the tradition, including on his 100th birthday.

Faith is central for Green, a Latter-day Saint. He said trusting in God and spending time outdoors – whether in his garden, in the Uinta mountains, or in the canyons bordering his neighborhood – have brought him solace.

But he has another word of advice.

“I don’t hold a grudge against anybody,” he said. “I think you just maintain a positive attitude.”

Memories in Melody

Memories for 103-year-old Hal Edison are sparked by music.

He sang along as Irving Berlin’s ‘Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning’ played from a smart speaker on his kitchen table in Salt Lake City.

Originally from Logan, Utah, Edison was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942. He decided to join the paratroopers for extra pay, he explained, and parachuted into Belgium, Italy, and Holland. He recalled holding on to the guidance of his military generals, who he described as strong and smart leaders.

Hal Edison recalling his time in the U.S. Army. (KSL-TV)

“They were our heroes,” he recalled.

Edison said warfare was just one of many trials he’s endured. While Edison was at war, his brother fell to his death at 25 years old.

“Live your life fully, if possible,” Edison said. “Sometimes it ends tragically.”

“Do what you have to do and do it willingly and peacefully,” he continued. “You won’t get into any trouble that way.”

Finding Balance

For Mary Kawakami, finding peace means finding balance.

“That’s what keeps me going!” said a spirited Kawakami. “How do I feel? 110 years strong!”

Keeping active is a priority, and she encourages others to do the same. Kawakami’s rigorous workouts with her son, Paul, are no secret. She invited a KSL crew to sit on a session in 2019.

And she believes the strength of the mind is just as important.

Her advice to anyone who asks: “They better put it in balance, or they are going to find themselves in a difficult situation!” she said during an interview at her home in Highland, Utah.

Mary Kawakami and her son Paul working out together in 2019. (KSL-TV)

Kawakami is well acquainted with difficulty. She ran a beauty shop in Carbon County until the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor when she said she and others of Japanese descent were told to leave town.

Named by her peers in Hollywood as one of 1954’s top ten hair stylists in the world, she ran a Provo beauty school at a time when few women were entrepreneurs. She retired at age 84.

Now, the mother of four, grandmother of five, and great-grandmother of twelve said she likes to sing, laugh, and enjoys the company of friends and family.

“Life is what you make of it!” Kawakami expressed.

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Four Utah centenarians share advice collected over more than 100 years