LEWISTON — There were more than a few surprises for Ruth Cheney Olsen during her 100th birthday party Sunday afternoon at Montello Heights Retirement Community.
Among the dozens of family members and friends who celebrated with her was a fellow 100-year-old classmate from high school. Another 100-year-old classmate from Bangor High School also sent greetings, although she wasn’t able to attend.
Ruth knew her fellow Montello residents were giving her a party in the activity room, but she hadn’t imagined the extent of the event that greeted her. The crowd sang a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” as she appeared at the door, and the tears began as she realized that people had come from coast to coast to see her.
Ruth was seated at a front table, and taking a place next to her was cousin Angie Keyser, who turned 100 last November. Keyser came to live at the Olsen home when the girls went to Bangor High School. Classmate and centenarian Marjory Perkins sent best wishes but was unable to travel from Exeter, N.H., for the event.
What is highest in Ruth Olsen’s memory as she reaches the century mark?
“My babies,” she said, referring to adopted son, Allan, and daughter Audrey Hanscom, who lives in Greene, who made arrangements for the party.
The party’s surprise element was almost lost, Hanscom said, when her shopping list of party items was accidentally found by her mother.
“We had a cookout,” Hanscom said, “and we tried to make that be the party she had discovered. We put a candle on a doughnut hole, and maybe she figured that was it.”
Maybe she did, and maybe she didn’t.
Ruth Olsen is a spry and gracious lady who gets around with only slight assistance from a walker. She talked at length with visitor after visitor, with Keyser at her side to chime in on their decades of memories.
Even at 100, not much gets past Ruth Olsen. At one point during a conversation, while a video slideshow played on a screen 30 feet away, she stopped suddenly and declared, “There’s my mother.”
She had been chatting while keeping an eye on a video slide show on a screen about 30 feet away.
The guests at Sunday’s party came from California, Florida, Pennsylvania and across New England. The family tree spread far and wide, but it seemed that the honored guest was up-to-date on both new and old branches. That included several infants and toddlers who met the grand lady of the family for the first time.
Edward Hansen, her first husband, died in the 1940s, and she was reunited with a high school boyfriend, Charlie Olsen, in 1972. Their marriage took them to California. He died in 1998 and she returned to Maine five years ago.
Her daughter, Audrey, recalled special activities her mother was passionate about.
“She loved roller skating and ice skating,” she said. “Church was always important to her, and she was always deeply involved in and supportive of Lions Clubs International.”
Several family members offered musical tributes and background accompaniment. Among them was nephew Ralph Cheney, who played a hammered dulcimer with his wife, Lynn, on guitar. He had not seen his aunt in about 40 years.
A special tribute was written and read by her first cousin, the Rev. Frank J. Clish of Carlisle, Penn., who recalled that Ruth and husband Ed gave him his first piano, as well as the first payment on the first house he and his wife Judy bought.
“Ruthie is a very special person,” he said.