Lifelong New Jerseyan Adele Dunlap, who assumed the title of oldest American five months ago, marked her 114th birthday Monday with a balloon bouquet and a "Happy Birthday" serenade from fellow residents of the Hunterdon County care center where she has lived since age 99.
But Dunlap made clear through her facial expressions and her answers to questions that she didn't appreciate the fuss. Asked what she was thankful for, Dunlap said, "Gee, how should I know?" And asked what her birthday wish was, she responded, "I've never thought of such a thing. I don't wish for anything."
She also declared that it was her 105th birthday. It's her habit to shave about a decade off her age, according to nursing home staff and her family.
Dunlap was born in Newark on Dec. 12, 1902. Her birth date has been validated by the Gerontology Research Group, which tracks "supercentenarians," or people older than 110. Among the documents attesting to her astonishing age is her diploma from South Side High School in Newark. It is dated June 27, 1921 — 95½ years ago.
There are believed to be several hundred supercentenarians in the world. In addition to being the oldest American, Dunlap is the world's ninth-oldest person. The oldest, according to the Gerontology Research Group database, is an Italian woman, Emma Morano-Martinuzzi, who marked her 117th birthday on Nov. 29. The next-oldest American is Meta Dishman of Virginia. She turned 113 on June 1. Of the world's 46 oldest people in the Gerontology Research Group's database, 44 are women.
Dunlap moved up to oldest American when Goldie Michelson of Worcester, Mass., died on July 8, one month shy of her 114th birthday. She said at the time that being the oldest American didn't make her feel any different.
On Monday morning at the Country Arch Care Center in Pittstown, Dunlap sat in a wheelchair with a blanket from the Tewksbury Women's Club over her lap and moccasins on her feet. She had her usual oatmeal for breakfast and then attended the "coffee club" in the dining room, where staffers and a dozen other residents sang "Happy Birthday" to her. That was the extent of the celebration. Country Arch recognizes birthdays en masse, and the 15 residents with December birthdays were feted last Wednesday.
The center has 111 residents, including five centenarians. The other four are more than a decade younger than Dunlap.
"Ms. Adele has requested that the celebrations become fewer because she says we are all important, and that speaks volumes about who she is," said Susan Dempster, Country Arch's marketing director.
Dempster described Dunlap as a "passive participant" in nursing home activities. She says the rosary every week and enjoys musical presentations, including Christmas carols from visiting Girl Scouts, who clamor to have their picture taken with the supercentenarian. "But we don't make Ms. Adele move that much physically," Dempster said. "If she wants to move, she'll move."
The former Adele Henderson taught school briefly in Kearny and raised her three children in Short Hills. Her husband, Earl Dunlap Sr., who worked in insurance, died in 1963. Before moving to Country Arch, she lived in Clinton with her son Earl Jr., now 86, and daughter-in-law Barbara.
Others apparently didn't get the memo about Dunlap not wanting to make a big deal about her age. Last week, the mayor of Clinton arrived with a proclamation wishing the lifelong "Jersey girl" continued good health. And in August, Kean University wrote Dunlap a letter of congratulations on "capturing a singular title that is reserved for the remarkable person in the United States who has lived the longest and has witnessed more history than anyone – oldest American." Dunlap received a bachelor of arts degree in elementary education from the Newark Normal School, Kean University's predecessor.
Soon after basking in birthday wishes Monday, Dunlap was looking ahead. Asked what her favorite part of the day is, the 114-year-old said, "I guess just going to bed."
This day in history
On Dec. 12, 1902, the day Adele Dunlap was born ....
Theodore Roosevelt was president. There have been 18 presidents since.
There were 45 states in the Union.
The U.S. population was approximately 80 million, a quarter of what it is today.
The Wright Brothers' famous flight was still 12 months away.
From the pages of The New York Times on Dec. 12:
New Hampshire adopts a constitutional amendment in favor of women's suffrage, striking the word "male" from the following passage: "Every male inhabitant of each town shall have the right to vote."
Christmas gift specials from the Bloomingdale's on 59th Street in Manhattan: Women's and men's gloves, $1; women's and men's slippers, $1.49; china tea sets, $5.98.