By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
On the afternoon of Feb. 22, Gadsby’s Tavern bustled with excitement as about 60 friends, neighbors and relatives gathered together to celebrate the birthday of Charlotte Olson, who had just turned 100 years old.
According to the longtime Old Town resident, the event itself was intimate, lively and exactly how she wanted it. One month prior, Olson was in Florida visiting her nieces, who encouraged her to spend the milestone birthday there. But Olson declined, stating that she preferred to be in Alexandria, where most of her community was located.
“So, I decided to throw myself a party, and I did,” Olson said. “We had a great time, and I’m really kind of happy about that. I figured, ‘Why not? It’s my birthday and I can celebrate it any way I want to.’”
The festivities included photos, gifts and crème brûlée, as well as a proclamation presented by Mayor Justin Wilson recognizing her 100th birthday.
Olson’s own feelings around holding the centenarian title are slightly less extravagant, delivered with the poise and composure of someone who has made peace with growing older.
“I don’t feel any different at 100 than I did at 99 or 90,” Olson said. “ … I have to use a cane for long walks, and I get by in the house easily enough. I’m up and down all the time, but I’m not running up the stairs like I used to. It’s one step at a time. You have to tolerate the shortcomings of your body when you get older.”
Though her general approach to aging is filled mostly with serenity and acceptance, Olson’s entrance into the world was bumpy.
Olson was born in Jamestown, North Dakota. On the day of her birth in 1922, a blizzard raged outside.
“They tell me that the doctor had to come to the hospital in a sled pulled by a horse because the roads were not clear,” Olson said with a laugh.
Olson went on to graduate from high school in Jamestown and subsequently attended the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks for one year. She had previously taken a civil service exam that afforded her the opportunity to attend St. Elizabeths Hospital School of Nursing in Washington, D.C., which at the time was a large psychiatric facility in Southeast with 7,200 beds.
Money was scarce in Olson’s family, as the nation had been recovering from the Great Depression and her father had recently passed away, so at her mother’s behest, she left North Dakota and enrolled at St. Elizabeths in 1941. She completed the program in 1944.
But Olson was determined to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing, so she joined the United States Cadet Nursing Corps, which allowed her to attend Catholic University. After graduating in 1946, Olson returned to St. Elizabeths Hospital, where she worked until retiring in 1980.
Olson worked as a federal employee for the entirety of her time at St. Elizabeths Hospital. Initially under control of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the hospital experienced a decline in patient population and later shifted ownership to D.C. around the same time Olson retired. This was intentional on her part; because she retired as a federal employee, Olson has a pension and receives periodic letters in the mail from civil service. Most recently, President Joe Biden sent her a card for her birthday.
“I think I’m the oldest one in the books,” she said. “Every once in a while I get a letter from them saying, ‘We’re so glad you’re still living,’ or something to that effect.”
Olson paused thoughtfully, then sighed, at the thought of paring down her decades-spanning career to just a few memorable moments. Although she noted that there are “too many” to count, one event did come to mind: President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953. Olson represented the federal nursing service at the time and walked in his parade, claiming that the marathon day lasted from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and was one she never forgot.
“Oh my gosh, that was a long day,” Olson recalled.
She also expressed pride about receiving her master’s degree in nursing in 1956. All told, Olson entered St. Elizabeths Hospital as a nursing student and retired as the associate director for nursing, which Olson said meant she was “a top-notch nurse in the hospital.”
At one point during Olson’s tenure as nursing director, St. Elizabeths was up for accreditation by the Joint Commission, which certifies healthcare organizations in the United States. Olson and the 13 division chief nurses who reported to her agreed that certain regulations, such as procedural manuals and policy care plans, should be in place before the inspectors arrived.
When the nursing division got accredited but the rest of the hospital did not, the hospital’s superintendent marched straight to Olson’s office.
“He said, ‘What did you do?’ And I said, ‘I threatened [my staff].’ And he said, ‘Threatened them? With what?’ And I said, ‘With me,’” Olson said.
She had ordered each division chief to do their part in implementing all the operations previously agreed upon, and unlike the rest of the hospital, Olson’s nursing division delivered.
“They didn’t want me coming to [their offices], but I had threatened them with that. I said, ‘If you don’t do it right, then I’ll be there on your backside.’ So everybody did what they were supposed to do, and we passed,” Olson said.
Reflecting on her experience in the workforce, Olson pointed to her early postsecondary years as especially formative. She said that because those years were spent during World War II, many students – including herself – were eager to get in and out of the school system with their degrees as quickly as possible.
“I was so anxious to get my B.S. and get out of there because I wanted to get organized and do a better job at work,” Olson said. “I wanted the information and experiences that I [ended up getting] at Catholic U.”
But Olson also attributed her drive and accomplishments to a strong work ethic, instilled in her at an early age by virtue of the fact that she is the daughter of immigrants. Olson’s father immigrated from Norway and her maternal grandparents immigrated from Sweden.
“That’s what immigrants do – they keep working and working and working to get where they’re supposed to be, where they think they’re most competent, and that’s what I did,” Olson said. “I’m sure it’s stuck in my DNA somewhere, that ‘You’ve got to do this because you’re an immigrant’s daughter.’”
Perhaps partly because of her roots, Olson expressed a deep love for travel. She served on the International Council of Nurses for many years, which allowed her to scratch her globetrotting itch. As part of the organization, Olson traveled to cities like Tokyo, Rome, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro.
One particularly monumental life change that occurred while Olson still worked at St. Elizabeths included her move to Alexandria, which was informed by the opening of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the fact that some of her friends lived in the area.
“I found a house in Old Town, Alexandria. It’s a small house, you know, two bedrooms, a bath and a half, and a very nice backyard, which I established. I’ve lived here now for 50 years,” Olson said.
During that time period, Olson also established relationships with many neighbors and community members. But at 100 years old she isn’t a stranger to the concept of mortality, having witnessed several of those friends passing over the years.
Olson now makes a concerted effort to keep in touch with her late friends’ children, with whom she visits regularly since her relatives don’t reside in the immediate area.
“[Death is] a fact of life. You go to your friends’ funerals and you try to keep up with their kids, and I do,” Olson said. “I keep up with them as diligently as I can because they represent the family that I have here.”
Olson’s days are generally filled with phone conversations with out-of-town relatives, in-person visits with local friends and tending to her garden when she has the energy. But also present in her demeanor is a calm knowing that things aren’t the way they once were.
“I’ve had to accept the fact that I can’t do what I used to do. My garden in the backyard – it was gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. If a weed came up, let me tell you, I pulled it right away. But I can’t do that anymore,” Olson said.
Still, there are many things she can do – one of which was speaking at Catholic University to a class of graduating seniors several weeks ago about her experience rising through the ranks in the nursing field. While she said she’d like to speak again at various events in the future, the docket for the next few days is more straightforward. Olson hopes to finally return her neighbor’s glasses, which were left at her birthday party, and catch up with her nieces via phone.
“I’m happy for the life I’ve had. I feel fulfilled. I know that I worked hard and I appreciate everything I have now,” Olson said. “I’m grateful for it. I really am.”