At 105, newest Cane holder stays young at heart

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MARBLEHEAD – Alice McGill Tompkins, a 105-year-old resident of Lafayette Rehabilitation and Nursing Home, was recently presented the historic Boston Post Cane, in recognition of her status as the town’s oldest living resident. In November, Marblehead Selectman Jackie Belf-Becker presented Tompkins with the cane and a plaque — a New England tradition that dates back more than 100 years.

In 1909, a year before Tompkins was born, The Boston Post newspaper asked 700 selectman from communities across Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island to present, on the paper’s behalf, a cane to the eldest citizen of their respective towns. Exported from forests of equatorial West Africa, and made of Gaboon ebony, one of the world’s most expensive lumbers, the canes were fashioned in New York by renowned cane maker J.F. Fradley. Once polished to a high luster, the canes were then heavily embellished with a 14-karat gold cap inscribed “As presented by The Boston Post to the Oldest Citizen of, [the town].”

The Marblehead Boston Post Cane outside the vault at Abbott Hall in Marblehead.

The Marblehead Boston Post Cane outside the vault at Abbott Hall in Marblehead.

With good intentions and an eye to increasing circulation, editor and publisher Edvin Grozier encouraged towns to document a splashy recognition of the life and times of the cane’s honoree. Showcasing stories people loved to read helped establish The Boston Post as the nation’s leading standard-sized newspaper of the time. To raconteur Grozier’s mind, each cane presentation was not only a good deed but good business.

Although the paper folded in 1956, selectmen in many New England communities today continue to observe the charming tradition of passing the Boston Post Cane along to the oldest citizen in town with the understanding the cane remains town property. Upon the demise of the honoree, a new recipient is recognized.

Tompkins, the recipient of the Marblehead cane, said she appreciates the honor and knows she’s lucky; she still enjoys wonderful health and, most importantly, is of sound mind.

Tompkins made clear that she lives at Lafayette Nursing Home, not because she isn’t perfectly well, but rather because her 80-year-old son Steve and 82-year-old daughter Jan fear she shouldn’t live alone due to occasional bouts with vertigo.

When asked to what she attributes to her good health, she said she believes in the physical and emotional benefits of lifelong activity, then paused and added that she wishes she had a stationery bike to ride in her room. Without a bike of her own, she has to sneak into the nursing home’s physical therapy room for a spin when no one is around.

In fact, she’d like to make a few other changes to the home. On occasion, she’d love some chicken liver with bacon, or Italian subs for dinner — “something you can really bite into” — and a she’d like a TV that helps her find her favorite show, Shark Tank. Alice wants to know what the latest inventions are.

Setting aside a word puzzle, Tompkins spoke with alacrity of childhood memories, and life as a young businesswoman who managed the publishing office of a local newspaper, The Reporter, formerly known as The Messenger. She reminisced of life as a young bride just after the Great Depression, and of her life as a happy mom.

Then she wistfully reviewed today’s headlines.

With a polite huff she said she doesn’t like Donald Trump and is hoping Mitt Romney reconsiders his White House ambitions.

“After all”, she said, “Romney is the only candidate with integrity. He never uses inappropriate language and didn’t take a salary while he was our governor.”

When asked to consider her feelings about a woman as president, Tompkins replied, “Hillary? Any self-respecting woman would have thrown her husband out years ago. No, she’s not fit to be president!”

Tompkins remembered the first time she voted in 1932, casting her vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt and credits his wisdom for the resolution of World War II. She wondered who will be strong enough to lead us through our present war of terror, then shrugged as she turned her attentions to her closet. Her hair coiffed, wearing jeans and a pink blouse perfectly coordinated with pink sequined top-siders, Tompkins said she likes plaid top-siders just as well as sequined ones – although for Christmas she’s intending to wear black Ferragamo Mary-Jane heels to Newburyport for lunch with the family.

In the past, Tompkins was an avid swimmer, sailor, skier and horse rider. She especially loved riding neighborhood Morgan horses that grazed nearby, waiting to make their daily rounds pulling delivery wagons owned by local purveyors of dairy, coal and sundries. Of course, availability of cars has eliminated the need for delivery horses, but Tompkins said that luxury comes with a cost; kids these days will never know the pleasure of sneaking a glide on a horse-drawn snow plow on a glorious winter’s day.

Speaking of kids, and knowing that Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday is being remembered Saturday, Tompkins belted out a chorus from the song Sinatra helped popularize, “Young at Heart.”

“And if you should survive to a hundred and five, look at all you’ll derive out of being alive. And here is the best part, you have a head start, if you are among the very young at heart!”

Read more by Diane Kilgore here.


Boston Post cane tradition continues today