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Bettie Wilson, 115; One of Three Oldest Americans

February 16, 2006|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Bettie Wilson, the daughter of freed slaves who was one of the three oldest people in America, died Monday at her home in New Albany, Miss., of complications from congestive heart failure, according to her great-granddaughter Della Shorter. Wilson was 115.

Three people, all women, celebrated their 115th birthdays last summer.

Two are still living, one in Tennessee and the other in Alabama. Wilson was the second oldest of the group.

A 116-year-old woman in Ecuador is documented as the oldest person in the world, according to the Gerontology Research Group based at UCLA, which studies people older than 110.

Longevity researcher Louis Epstein of Putnam County, N.Y., told The Times that 90% of people who live to be 110 or older are women.

"If you make it to age 110, you have about a 3% chance of making it to 115," he said, in emphasizing the rarity of Wilson's age.

"Bettie Wilson was amazing," said Robert Young, a longevity researcher in Atlanta who documented Wilson's biographical data.

"At 114, she was still able to read the newspaper and sign her name," he said. She celebrated her last five birthdays with parties for several hundred relatives and friends. Her most recent was a picnic on her front lawn.

Wilson was never hospitalized for an illness until 106, when she had gallstones removed.

She recovered well enough to return to her home, which she shared with Shorter, her caretaker for the last 16 years.

Born Bettie Rutherford, Sept. 13, 1890, in Benton County, Miss., she was the youngest of nine siblings.

She worked in the cotton fields from a young age and had little formal education, but taught herself to read and write.

She married Rufus Rogers and the couple had a son before Rogers died. She married the Rev. Dewey Wilson in 1922.

They had two children, both girls, and remained married for 72 years until her husband died at the age of 93.

Last year, when her old house was falling apart, Wilson and Shorter moved into a new one built for them with a government grant and contributions from local churches and businesses.

It was painted pink to set it apart from the others in the neighborhood.

All of her adult life, Wilson liked to pray and go to church more than anything else, Shorter said. She also enjoyed gardening and cooking. Wilson referred to it all as "living right."

She is survived by her son, Willie Rogers, age 96. Other surviving relatives include five grandchildren, 46 great-grandchildren and 95 great-great-grandchildren.

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