VAN NUYS — The Valley was a vastly different place for Cecelia Schlueter in 1925. When the former country schoolteacher came from Illinois to Van Nuys, she found a place resplendent with walnut and orange trees and lettuce fields.
Roscoe Boulevard was a dirt road. People called Van Nuys Boulevard "downtown."
"It was a small town, that's what it was," said Schlueter, 93, who still lives in Van Nuys. "Not many people lived here then. You knew your neighbors. You went downtown and knew everyone on the street."
Schlueter may no longer know everyone in her community, but she has a group of close friends with whom she'll square-dance the night away on Friday to celebrate her 94th birthday at the Canoga Park Women's Club. Her birthday is actually Sunday, but it is never too early to commemorate a life she shares with a daughter, two grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and many friends.
The word people use most to describe Schlueter is "unbelievable." She is active and independent, not only attending her square-dance club's dances, but also serving as club treasurer.
Schlueter lives alone, doing her own cooking, housework and gardening. She tends more than 300 flowers, including roses, tulips, gladioli and daffodils. And like most Southern Californians, she drives, even at night. She has been driving since 1930.
"But I don't drive the freeways, forget about that," Schlueter said. "But I drive everywhere else."
"She drives as fast as I do. She doesn't drag around," added friend Bill Rodger, 70, of North Hollywood.
Schlueter also hosts annual Christmas parties and Easter egg hunts at her home. Without any help, she prepares all the holiday dishes--last Christmas she prepared chicken crepes--and until the last party, she wouldn't let friends help her set up the tables.
Only Schlueter's hearing has begun to suffer.
"The only thing wrong with my hearing--the doctor said it's old age--is a little humming in my ears," she explained.
But Schlueter's friends say she's no whiner.
"She never complains of her aches and pains," said Sheila Rodger, 66. "I've never known her to say, 'I feel bad or I have a toothache.' She is one of those unusual people. She has a very good outlook on life."
And despite her stylish hair and easy smile, Schlueter will not shy away from a confrontation, especially when playing cards.
"You can get into arguments with her," Bill Rodger said. "She's not going to take a bunch of abuse. She'll stand up for herself."
Yet Schlueter has been taking care of herself all along. Born in Collinsville, Ill., in 1905, Schlueter came to the Valley when she was 20 to be closer to relatives. At an office job at the Southern California Gas Co., she made $80 a month and met her first husband.
Back then, Canoga Park was known as Owensmouth, North Hollywood was Lankershim, Woodland Hills was Girard and Northridge was Zelzah. Schlueter enjoyed riding the "red cars" to the big central market in downtown Los Angeles.
At home, she could sleep peacefully with her door unlocked. "Anybody could've walked in and nobody walked in," she said. "You would go to bed with the windows open when it was hot. Nobody bothered you; everybody trusted everybody. But then things got a little more complicated, and nobody trusted anybody."
Schlueter held several office jobs before retiring in the early '70s after meeting her second husband, John, while square-dancing. John Schlueter died from a fall in 1997 at 86. She said they were a happy couple who traveled as far away as Egypt and Algeria. She lends books filled with their travel pictures to friends.
Those friends often ask her how she has managed to live so long and so well. Healthy living--Schlueter said she has never smoked or taken alcohol--and genes predisposed toward longevity may have something to do with it: Her two sisters are 89 and 83.
"They want the recipe. They always ask me if I had a face lift, even the doctors are amazed," Schlueter said. "I just love people, and I don't do a lot of worrying. It doesn't do you any good, so why worry? I just take whatever comes."