Oneonta resident celebrates 102nd birthday

Sarah Eames | The Daily Star Charlene Schjeldahl, right, celebrated her 102nd birthday Thursday surrounded by family and friends, including granddaughter Mary Ann, left, at Hampshire House Assisted Living in Oneonta.

Dozens of residents at Hampshire House Assisted Living in Oneonta came together Thursday to celebrate one of their own.

Local musician Steve O’Neal entertained the crowd with covers of early rock’n’roll hits such as Bill Haley and the Comets’  “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up,” and the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love.”

Streamers hung from the backs of chairs, and several helium balloons were anchored by a piano at the back of the room — the occasion was the 102nd birthday of Charlene Schjeldahl, a one-year resident of the home.

Schjeldahl made her grand entrance flanked by her granddaughter, Mary Ann, and great-grandson, Eamon. A foil balloon tethered to her walker, she waved to her friends as she made her way to the center of the dining hall.

Once seated at the place of honor, perched atop two pillows, she was presented with 102 red roses, accompanied by a card signed “everyone at Hampshire House,” and a homemade sheet cake with strawberry filling and blue icing flowers — her favorite, according to Mary Ann.

Charlene’s silver hair is tinted with a two-toned streak — turquoise and violet, the colors of suicide awareness — in honor of her grandson Jeremy, who lost his life to suicide in 2004.

On a chain around her neck she wears a golden cat-shaped brooch and silver pendant with five embedded gemstones, the birthstones of each of her children.

Descended from Norwegian immigrants, Charlene was born on June 27, 1917, in North Dakota. She and her late husband, Gilmore — better known as Shelly — raised their family in Minnesota, where she worked as the office manager for his firm, the G. T. Schjeldahl Company.

Shelly was an inventor and entrepreneur, she said; he is credited with inventing the plastic-lined airsickness bag, and his company garnered international recognition in 1960 for designing and building Echo I, NASA’s first communications satellite.

Charlene still carries with her a pocket-sized square of mylar, printed with the company logo and project insignia.

She said some of her fondest childhood memories include doing crossword puzzles with her parents, just a few years after they were invented, and following the escapades of American aviator Charles Lindbergh.

“I was terribly impressed by Lindbergh — I would listen all the time to see if he would get to France,” she said, recalling his historic 1927 transatlantic flight.

Charlene recounted her own international travels, for business and for pleasure, accompanied by her husband to destinations such as Japan, Italy and France. She said her favorite was Norway, which the couple visited four times.

Shelly died in 2002, after 61 years of marriage, while the couple was living in Massachusetts, Charlene said. There she celebrated her 100th birthday, receiving a citation from the state House of Representatives in honor of the occasion. 

Many of her descendants — five children, six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren — inherited her Scandinavian blue eyes, straw-colored hair and love of literature, she said.

A voracious reader, Charlene credits the habit for her longevity.

“Reading is the secret,” she said. “The world is your oyster. When you read, you get to go any place you want to.”

She said her favorites include Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming,” and anything by Agatha Christie, but “I always tell people my favorite book is a library book.” 

For every book she reads, Charlene said she hopes she’ll live long enough to make it to the last page. 

“What could be worse than leaving a book unfinished?” she said. “Unless there’s something to read in the afterlife.”

Charlene is nearly unbeatable at Scrabble, according to her granddaughter, Mary Ann, who visits once a week to do crossword puzzles.

When she’s not playing bridge in Oneonta every Thursday or attending the Hampshire House’s monthly writing group, Charlene said she enjoys napping, word searches and playing piano for the residence’s weekly sing-a-longs. 

One of her favorite songs to play is “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” she said, “because I hate to get up in the morning.”

“I love life,” Charlene said. “I really do — I say it all the time: I love life.”

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.