By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
As a young boy, Walter Hammersley delivered newspapers across the City of Alexandria. He would ride his bike up and down King Street, stop by the city jail and visit the old Torpedo Factory all as part of his route. But that was more than 90 years ago; recently, the longtime resident celebrated his 100th birthday.
During his lifetime, Hammersley enlisted in the Navy during World War II, worked for the railroad, developed a career as a mortgage banker and devoted time to the Alexandria Boys Club sports leagues. A true city native, Hammersley has quite literally watched Alexandria change over the years.
“Now I don’t see the stores where I used to get my clothes,” Hammersley said. “The barbershop where I used to get my hair cut – all of those are gone and everything is big now.”
Hammersley, who grew up on Payne Street, is one of 13 residents whose lives and stories were honored at the city’s second annual centenarian celebration on Tuesday evening. Held at the Vola Lawson Lobby in city hall, the gathering included honorees, family and community members coming together to celebrate the city residents who are 100 years and older.
The city’s first centenarian event took place last year virtually, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making this year the first ever in-person celebration. According to Mary Lee Anderson, executive director of Senior Services of Alexandria, the project was a labor of love.
“It’s a real group effort. All these different city departments and our nonprofit [are] coming together to celebrate some really special people,” Anderson said.
The concept came about last year when Mayor Justin Wilson approached Anderson about emulating in the city a program he heard about in Southern Virginia that honored centenarians.
Anderson subsequently reached out to the Division of Aging and the Successful Aging Committee, who agreed to help turn the idea into reality. Last year’s event featured a PowerPoint presentation as well as a certificate and coin for each honoree. This year, since in-person events were allowed, staff decided to throw a real party.
Tuesday’s bash included 13 giant birthday cards for guests to sign, each with a photo and short bio of the honoree for whom it represented. There was also an opportunity for centenarians to sign up for an oral history recording with the Office of Historic Alexandria’s new Oral History Center in order to preserve their memories.
“All the people involved are serving older adults in our community and we know how important it is to honor their lives, and how much they’ve given to others – their families, the community, everyone that they’re in contact with. We need to honor our elders and respect them, and this is a really fun way to do it,” Anderson said.
Kate Garvey, director of the Department of Community and Human Services, kicked off the evening by expressing gratitude to the city for prioritizing, valuing and supporting the health and safety of Alexandria’s older residents.
“It’s really important for us to take time to reflect on the lives of the people we’re with today. It’s really important for us to understand what it takes to live successfully, and when you look at the advice the centenarians have given us, it is so valuable,” Garvey said.
Each birthday card bio offered life tips, some of which were to “do what your family tells you;” “make the best out of every situation;” “look for understanding and compromise;” and to have “curiosity about the world and other people, as well as healthy eating habits and exercise.”
The evening concluded with a musical performance by the Alexandria Citizens Band, and congratulatory remarks, presentations and distribution of certificates by Wilson for the centenarians in attendance. Although 13 centenarians submitted applications, four made it to the event.
Along with Hammersley, they were Anita Du Mars, 101, Phillip Melville, 100, and Frances Webb, 102.
Du Mars grew up in Luxembourg, where she met her husband David, who fought in Normandy, Germany and the Battle of the Bulge. She came to the United States with 350 other WWII brides and speaks five languages, including Luxembourgish, French, German, English and Spanish.
Melville was born in Paris, France and moved during WWII to Albuquerque, New Mexico as a teenager. He worked as a civil engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Civil Aviation Administration.
Webb, who was the oldest of five children, helped watch her siblings after her father passed away. She worked at the South Carolina Navy Yard as a welder and was married to her husband Jewel for more than 50 years.
“It’s all right here; four people who can really walk us through amazing things about Alexandria,” Garvey said.
Other registered centenarians who were not in attendance included Andrey Fenton, 100, Lowell Fisher, 100, Marilyn McLean, 100, Jane Sara, 102, Alice Schmidt, 102, Catherine Sevick, 105, Virginia Sahaj, 102, Miriam Wiener, 100 and Mildred Youso, 101. Some city centenarians were not registered, including Charlotte Olson, who turned 100 in February.
During his remarks, Wilson said the event was intended to celebrate an important milestone and shed light on the legacy each centenarian has built in the community.
“These are the folks who have given back to our community for a generation, a lifetime, and have embodied resilience, embodied self possession, as well as generosity,” Wilson said. “These are folks who have given back in so many different ways to our community – in little and large ways – and have made their mark on this city.”
“The fact that they are here today telling us [their] stories, teaching us, is such a pleasure for all of us and such a miracle,” he added.
Hammersley’s overarching feelings about becoming a centenarian were certain and succinct.
“I’m pleased to be 100,” Hammersley said. “I’m very glad to be here.”