Neighbors: Young at heart

Fountain of youth found in the mind . . . and an occasional vodka martini



hat’s the

secret to a long life spanning more than a century? Cornelia Spanier says the answer is quite simple. “Don’t think old,” she said. “Think young.”

And an occasional vodka martini helps, too. “You’ve got to live a little,” she laughed.

Spanier, who turned 102 in July, has witnessed events that most people have only read about in history books. She’s lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, the civil rights movement, the moon landing, 18 U.S. presidents and one technological breakthrough after another.

At 102, Cornelia Spanier (center) credits her longevity to living a vibrant life filled with love, laughter and friendship. She got her sea legs in the late 1950s, and in the years that followed, sailed all over the world. “I’ve had so many wonderful adventures,” she said.

And through it all, there’s been one constant. “I’ve met many wonderful people,” she said. “I’ve made so many true friends. My life has been filled with so much friendship, so much love.”

Spanier was born on July 26, 1915, in the tiny town of Ferndale, Calif. When she was 5, her family moved to a dairy ranch in southwestern Oregon. There, Spanier developed a lifelong love of animals — from frogs and lizards to dogs and horses — as well as a passion for learning.

After high school, Spanier attended Oregon State University, where she pledged Gamma Phi Beta (she’s been an active member for 82 years and has been honored for her decadeslong service to the sorority). In 1938, she earned a degree in secretarial science, and soon after, began working as a private secretary.

In the years that followed, Spanier would get married, have a son, move to California, move back to Oregon, and then back to California again. In 1952, after settling down in San Francisco’s Sunset District, Spanier landed a clerical job at Emporium Capwell Co., the parent company of The Emporium, a department store chain that was headquartered in downtown San Francisco. That’s when life took an unexpected turn: When the head of the company’s unemployment claims department suddenly fell ill, Spanier was asked to fill his shoes. “I didn’t have any experience,” she said. “I had to learn everything very quickly.”

As it turned out, Spanier was a quick study. It wasn’t long before she became well-known and well-respected in her field — so much, in fact, that she eventually wrote and published a book titled “Processing Unemployment Insurance Claims: A Handbook for Small California Businesses.”

When she retired in 1971, Spanier vowed to avoid idleness at all costs. “I wasn’t going to go home and sit around all day,” she said. “I needed to be busy.” So, she leveraged her expertise and became an unemployment appeals hearing specialist and consultant for other companies in California. Over the next decade, she fulfilled her pledge to stay busy — but it wasn’t all work and no play.

An avid sailor, Spanier began voyaging to exotic places, including Turkey’s Turquoise Coast, Sardinia, Corsica, Tahiti and Cocos Island off of Costa Rica.

“I’ve sailed all over the world,” she said. “I love to be out on the water. It’s such a wonderful feeling.”

When she wasn’t on a far-flung adventure, Spanier was at home in San Francisco tending to her garden or volunteering — first, as a docent at the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, then as a host for the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leader-ship Program. For several years, Spanier welcomed visitors from all corners of the globe — Macedonia, Tonga, France, Ireland, Afghanistan and everywhere in between — to her home for dinner.

Every time her doorbell rang, she said, a new friendship would blossom.

“They were like family,” she said, gazing fondly at a blue three-ring binder stuffed with photos, letters and thank-you cards. “I never wanted them to leave.”

Spanier lived on her own in San Francisco for 28 years. When she turned 96, she decided to join her son, Barry, and daughter-in-law, Samantha, on Maui. True to her nature, she didn’t waste any time getting involved.

Not long after she arrived, Spanier signed up for cooking classes, dinner excursions and history and culture tours through the Kaunoa Senior Center in Spreckelsville.

“I can’t speak highly enough of the Kaunoa Senior Center,” she said. “The scope of what they do there is amazing.”

She also tracked down, and planned reunions for, several Gamma Phi Beta sorority sisters living on Maui, and joined the Maui Branch of the American Association of University Women. Among other things, the AAUW Maui Chapter awards scholarships to University of Hawaii Maui College students, and earlier this year Spanier established a new scholarship for a student who shares her interest in marine biology.

To no one’s surprise, Spanier planned her own birthday party this year. She chose the venue, called all 40 guests, met with the caterer on several occasions, and designed the table arrangements and party favors. “It was a wonderful party,” she said. “I am fortunate to have so many good people in my life.”

Lively and quick-witted, Spanier has added years to her life — and life to her years — by taking her own advice. “I never think old,” she said. “There will be no rocking chair for me.”

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.