News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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October 9, 2013

MARK BENNETT: At 100, she still walks the walk

TERRE HAUTE — Some people are an inspiration by just being themselves.

Rosie Dragon has that rare gift.

A dozen people standing around her Wednesday afternoon in the cozy lobby of the Terre Haute Transit Utility could sense it. They gathered in the city’s downtown bus terminal to toast her 100th birthday with a cake, a card, and a lifetime bus pass, provided by the city. Mayor Duke Bennett and Transportation Director Brad Miller presented the honors to Rosie, as a loyal rider. Those officials, along with family, friends and transit staffers, generated most of the conversation.

Rosie smiled, listened quietly, and spoke softly. Her greeters paid close attention to her words.

After all, being a centenarian is special. Though their ranks are increasing, just 53,364 Americans were 100 years old or more when the 2010 Census was counted — less than the population of Terre Haute.

Everyone wanted to hear Rosie’s advice on living such a long, healthy life, as a woman who lives in the same southside home she bought in 1940, cuts her own grass with a non-motorized push mower, cooks her meals, sews, does her laundry, irons her clothes, rakes her leaves, and buys her groceries.

Rosie’s secret formula for longevity?

“Walk,” she said, simply.

With one word, she spoke volumes. Maybe a few more long walks by us all would brighten this community’s less-than-stellar overall health.

For Rosie, that practice started shortly after she was born in Terre Haute, back in 1913. She’s never stopped. “I love to walk,” Rosie said. “I walk all the time.”

Rather than drive a car, Rosie has typically walked or ridden the city buses, said her sister, Ann Pence. Living on the south side, she worked on the city’s north side at Columbia Enameling and Stamping Mill at 19th and Beech streets for 40 years, handling shifts of 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., or 2 to 10 p.m. When she pulled late-shift overtime, Rosie would walk home when quitting time went past the city bus route hours.

She embodies the “greatest generation,” as author Tom Brokaw called folks who lived through the Depression of the 1930s.

Rosie grew up as one of seven children of Romanian immigrants Pete and Buzash Dragon on a farm south of Terre Haute. Rosie and another sister had to leave school to help support the family after their mother died. “She basically raised me, because Mother died when I was 18 months old, and Dad was left with all these kids,” Ann, 85, said of Rosie.

The siblings experienced long lives, and three — Rosie, Ann and their 88-year-old brother, Dave — survive. “Health-wise, it seems the family has good luck,” Ann said.

On Wednesday, Rosie came prepared to enjoy the festivities, and the cake, rather than to dish out bits of wisdom. She offered a few hints to those of us hoping to see our personal odometer hit triple digits. She likes sweet potatoes, a staple on their family farm decades ago. “Well, we used to live on sweet potatoes,” Rosie explained. She drinks water regularly, family members said.

And she maintains a generous, humble soul.

“My sister was always a giver,” Dave Dragon said. “She believed you should be good to your neighbors. And she just rolled with the punches. Her life was hard, but she never complained.”

Instead, she’s stayed active. And, yes, she walks.

“That’s what she tells me, ‘If it hurts, just keep moving. Don’t stop,’” said Cheryl Lough, Rosie’s great-niece. Fittingly, Cheryl became a track coach.

With her lifetime pass, Rosie may walk to the bus stop a bit more often now. Unlike other generations, hers understood the value of mass transit, said Miller, who oversees the city buses. Rosie began riding the buses in her 20s. In those days, the buses were packed. “Yes, full,” Rosie confirmed. “I’d stand up from the time I got on till I got off.” She’s still a regular. The drivers know Rosie, and gave her a birthday card at the celebration. The mayor gave her a certificate and read it aloud.

“It says, ‘Congratulations, Rosie Dragon. You will ride forever,’” the mayor said as she held the lifetime bus pass.

She smiled and quipped, “You should’ve given me that 10 years ago,” drawing chuckles from the mayor and everybody else.

Her spirit made me smile, too, as I left the decorated bus station lobby. I was glad that I’d walked there to witness it.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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