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After a Late Start, Centenarian Still on the Road

December 01, 1985|STEVE HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

When he reached the age of 34, Emerson Olds Houser decided it was time to join the modern age and buy his first automobile. After all, it was 1919.

Houser paid a Chicago dealer $500 for a new Chevrolet.

He didn't know how to drive, but that was no problem.

"The man who sold me the car taught me," recalled Houser, 100, last week at the Long Beach Convention Center, where he was honored as one of nine centenarians in the state with driver's licenses.

Houser, a Pasadena resident since 1965, couldn't help but reflect on how times have changed.

"My first car cost $500 and I came here in a $50,000 car," he said with a laugh, referring to the Cadillac limousine that transported him to the Long Beach International Auto Show.

There, he was given a plaque by Rep. Glenn Anderson (D-Long Beach). Houser, a retired Presbyterian minister, wore a button that said, "All-American Buckle-Up," a reference to a Department of Transportation promotion to urge drivers to wear seat belts.

"I've been in three accidents--none of them my fault," Houser said.

Fortunately, none of them occurred until the seat-belt age.

"If I hadn't been wearing seat belts at the time (of the accidents), I don't think I'd be here today," he added.

Houser, who said he has been ticketed for one moving violation in 66 years (improper lane change), passed his most recent driving exam last year.

He was given a two-year, time-restricted license that expires next May, on his 101st birthday.

"Are there any other restrictions?" someone asked.

"Yes," Houser answered. "I have to wear glasses."

Houser said he drives every day, either in his sedan or his van (the 15th and 16th cars he has owned). But he leaves the freeway driving to others.

"People drive too recklessly these days," he said. "Everyone seems in a hurry."

Never a sedentary couple, Houser and his 78-year-old wife, Helen Mae, still like to hike, though they have slowed down the pace since they marched across Glacier National Park on their honeymoon 60 years ago.

"We hiked that whole summer, more than 350 miles," Helen Mae said.

"They liked to hike so much it took a long time before I was born," joked daughter Helen, 50.

When the family hiked in the Rocky Mountains last summer, their daughter recalled, she found Houser performing lifting exercises with two rocks one morning.

At home, he pumps a little iron and takes long walks for exercise.

A 1911 graduate of Harvard University, Houser came out of retirement twice, the last time to serve on the staff of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pasadena at the age of 80.

"When I got to be 90, I decided it was time to really retire," he said.

Last May, on his 100th birthday, the church honored him with a life-sized portrait.

"It's beautiful," his daughter said. "He's in ministerial robes, with a black background and the light highlighting his hair. But after the ceremony he told me, 'I don't like it.' I asked him why. He said, 'It makes me look too old."'

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