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At 105, Claire O'Rourke Is Just Getting Started

March 26, 1990|CHARLES HILLINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

QUINCY, Calif. — For the three dozen or so senior citizens who regularly eat their weekday lunch at Veteran's Hall in this small Northern California mountain town, Claire O'Rourke is a continuing source of inspiration.

In part, it's a matter of constancy. As treasurer of Quincy's Senior Citizen Nutrition Program, O'Rourke is always on the job, collecting money for the $1.50 lunches, doling out change and keeping the books.

But mostly, it's a matter of time, and the apparent lack of effect its passing has had on O'Rourke. At 105, she is spry, alert and independent.

"Claire is unbelievable. She has a kid older than me," said Jessie Spaulding, one of the lunch program's regular diners. He is 82; O'Rourke's only child, Francis, will be 84 in May.

"She gets around better than I do," volunteered Fanny Cole, 66. "And, she's old enough to be my grandmother."

Tony del Collo, 67, who drives the bus that transports the lunch program's patrons, said he can usually count on O'Rourke to help most of his passengers on and off the vehicle.

Said Del Collo: "She helps 70- and 80-year-old men and women. I am always astounded by Claire's stamina at her age."

O'Rourke, who said she has never been seriously ill a day in her life, takes such remarks in stride and counts her blessings. "I'm thankful every day to be here, grateful that I am able to do the things I do and get around the way I do," she said.

She lives alone, cooking her own meals and doing her own housework in her 143-year-old home. A senior citizen bus calls for her twice a week to take her shopping for groceries and other items. She putters in her garden. She has her hair done every week. She frequently goes out to dinner with friends and never misses the monthly meeting of the local Order of the Eastern Star, a women's group associated with the Masons.

O'Rourke, who stands only 5-feet tall and has always been slightly built, was born in the tiny town of La Porte, 40 miles south of Quincy, on Jan. 23, 1885. The Civil War had been over for less than 20 years. The population of Los Angeles was less than 50,000. Chester A. Arthur was president; Franklin D. Roosevelt was a week away from celebrating his third birthday.

O'Rourke's parents had seven children; she was the oldest. All were born in La Porte's Union Hotel, which was operated by her mother and father. Her last sibling died in 1985.

"I'm kind of a lone wolf. Nobody is left from my earlier years. They're all gone. It's scary, but I don't dwell on it. I haven't any idea why I'm still here," she mused.

O'Rourke has lived in Plumas County in the northern Sierra all her life. She married a local boy, Leonard O'Rourke, in 1905. She describes him as a "jack-of-all-trades" who eventually got into politics.

He served as a county supervisor for 12 years and had been county treasurer for two years when he died at age 74 in 1949. She took over the office that year and served in it until 1963.

Although she mostly lives in the present, O'Rourke occasionally pauses to reflect on the almost unimaginable changes she's witnessed. "When I was a girl there were no cars. We rode horses and in horse-drawn buggies. We had no electricity when I was young, no telephones, no radio or television, of course. All that came later. What a life I've had."

Not that she's ready to call it quits. "You know, I was 14 going on 15 when the 1800s ended and 1900 began," she said. "I would sure like to see the year 2000. That would really be nice. I'm having such a good time that I'm planning on hanging around awhile longer."

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