When Percy Washington was born, Grover Cleveland was President of the United States. At age 5, in 1890, Washington worked in the cotton fields near his hometown of Baton Rouge, La. By the time he was 17, he was working in sawmills for 30 cents a day.
He married in the 1920s and moved to St. Louis. He came to Los Angeles on vacation in 1950 and has been here since.
His secret to longevity? "Don't eat too much. It puts a strain on your heart," he said.
Washington and 10 other centenarians from the Los Angeles area gathered Tuesday in Glendale for a luncheon given in their honor by a group concerned with health care for the elderly.
It was the first time he had been around so many of his contemporaries in years, Washington said.
"I'm 101 years old, and I don't believe I've ever felt more special than today," he said.
Indeed, it was a day unlike any they could remember, the centenarians said as they were honored for living so long.
The dining room at Churchill's Restaurant was filled by friends and relatives of the seniors and by Glendale and Los Angeles officials.
The centenarians came from convalescent homes, said Jean Priestman, coordinator of the luncheon. At the honorees' table in the center of the room were tiny American flags and carnations in gray lacquer vases.
As proclamations from President Reagan, Gov. George Deukmejian, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and Glendale Mayor Larry Zarian were read, some of the centenarians beamed and applauded.
Alice McMahon, 100, waved her flag and chatted with her two granddaughters. Her family spans five generations, and she says she expects to be a great-great-great-grandmother any year now.
McMahon was born in Kansas on Dec. 4, 1885. She married in 1904, and her husband died in 1945, she said. She moved to Los Angeles about 20 years ago.
"It's up to God how long you live. You live until he wants you," McMahon said.
The oldest person honored was Mattie Higgins, 104. She said she had talked enough over the years and contented herself with eating her meal rather than answering queries about her long life.
The guest of honor was to have been Paula Luera, who died last week at 114.
The event was organized by the Burbank-based American Centenarian Committee, which was formed to call attention to health care needs of the elderly, said its chairman, Raphael O. Cordero.
Zarian said that all the centenarians looked great but that Washington appeared much younger than 101.
"I hope I look that good when I'm 71, let alone 101," he said.