THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA: Elma Corning Was 112, and That Was Old News to Her

Jason Felch
LA Times Staff Writer, pp. A1, 19 (July 17, 2004).

Mrs. Elma Corning

July 17, 2004; How did California's oldest woman get to age 112? Bacon and coffee in the morning, the Dodgers and an occasional cocktail before bed. Even before Elma Corning died in Hollywood on Monday, her health and longevity were the subject of wonder as well as an inquiry by a UCLA specialist on aging. What Dr. Stephen Coles found in Corning was a woman who acted as if no one ever told her that she was old. During the last 23 years of her life at Kingsley Manor retirement home in Hollywood, Corning insisted on a breakfast of bacon and coffee, enjoyed a piece of pie for dessert, and on special occasions ended the evening with a nightcap. She was a Dodger fanatic and an active member of the manor's Residents Council, often starting the meeting with a curt "Cut out the laughing! Meeting come to order!"

Until the day she died, Corning dressed impeccably, disdainful of the plain smocks some residents wore. With the help of her nurse, each morning she would don one of her signature dresses, put on makeup, earrings, and a pearl necklace, and slip on a pair of fancy black shoes. "You've got your dancing shoes on," a longtime friend would tease her. Each Wednesday, including her final one, Corning had her hair curled. Every other week, she sat for a manicure. Always proud of her appearance, Corning modeled in the home's annual fashion shows until she was 100.

It was her son, 80-year-old Russell Corning, who a year ago contacted Coles to tell him about his mother. Coles, one of a handful of researchers who keep a running file on "Supercentenarians" (people 110 or older), was intrigued, and in April he went to Kingsley Manor to interview her. "She looked great the day I interviewed her. That really blew me away," said Coles, a Professor and Researcher at UCLA's School of Medicine. Coles said he was initially skeptical of Corning's age until he looked at the back of her hands, where transparent skin is a signature of centenarians. He later verified her age through personal records, including a birth certificate and a marriage certificate, which her son provided him. When Coles asked about Corning's health history, he was surprised to learn that she had been hospitalized only once in her life, in 1908 to have her tonsils removed.

Corning moved into Kingsley Manor in 1981, taking a room in the four-story brick building off Santa Monica Blvd. that was built in 1912 by the Methodist Church as an old-age home. She had outlived a nearby retirement home, which closed that year.

Born in Oskaloosa, IA, Corning moved to Los Angeles in the 1920s. Her husband died in 1956, and she never remarried. She worked as a home economics teacher and homemaker before retiring in 1960. Her energy and enthusiasm quickly made an impression on the Manor staff and residents. She outlived most of the residents from her early years there. But over the last decade, younger friends from First Congregational Church, where Corning had been an active member since 1935, moved into the home. "It was surprising how alert and interested she was in life," said Claire H., who knew Corning for 55 years through the church and asked not to have her full name published. "Most of these people [in the convalescent wing] are not interested in reading or TV. They'll play bingo, but not much else."

Until age 102, Corning insisted on carrying her own luggage during her annual flights to visit her son, who lives in San Rafael, Calif. Don't worry, she'd tell Manor staff, my bag has wheels. "I came here in the fall of 1994, when she was 102," said Virginia Palumbo, 83, another close friend of Corning. "Even then she was walking up the stairs to her second-floor apartment, lickety-split, right on up." Bruce Udelf, Executive Director of the nonprofit home, recalls a day two years later when Corning was stung by a bee while sitting in her usual spot on the breezeway. She reached out, snatched the insect in midair and walked it over to show a nurse. The cornerstones of Corning's life here were family, church and the Dodgers, Russell Corning said. She fell asleep at night listening to Dodger games on the radio, and remembered with glee when her favorite player, Sandy Koufax, struck out a record-breaking 15 Yankee batters in the 1963 World Series. Unlike many residents, Corning had no dietary restrictions, Udelf said. "She could have whatever she wanted, and she did," he said. There was one exception. "Her whole life, she never drank milk. She's allergic," her son said. Whenever Russell Corning visited his mother, she would insist on cooking breakfast for him every morning in her room. They'd eat dinner at Edwards Steakhouse - - first the one on Alvarado Street in Los Angeles, then, when it closed, the one in El Monte.

In January 1998, a day after walking Russell to the door and waving goodbye, Corning's 105-year-old legs gave out. When her doctor told her she'd have to move from her apartment to the Manor's convalescent wing, Corning remained upbeat. "My circumstances have changed," she told the doctor, Udelf said. In her last year, as a mild dementia crept in, Corning slept most of the day and then soundly through the night. Even so, each day she was dressed and brought down to the breezeway, where she'd greet friends, smell the roses or take a nap. Days before her 112th birthday in February, she told her daughter-in-law, "I'm just really enjoying life, and I want to go on." The birthday party lasted two days, and many friends recalled how lively Corning looked in her bright blue dress with a white orchid on the lapel. It was one of her best days, her son said. On Monday night, as a nurse was bathing her, Corning quietly stopped breathing.

According to Coles' records, Corning became California's oldest resident when Molly Beard, another L.A. resident, died in September 2003 at age 110 years. Corning was the 17th-oldest person in the world when she died, and seventh-oldest in the United States, according to Coles. On Wednesday, the Professor did an autopsy on Corning. "There was no immediate cause of death apparent," Coles said, adding that final test results were not yet available. Her lungs, heart, kidneys and liver appeared to be "clean as a whistle." Coles, who is studying ways to prolong life, said it's probably futile to over-analyze Corning's diet or lifestyle to determine the key to her longevity. When dealing with people of any age, the answer is hidden mostly in the genetic makeup.

On Friday, Room 311 at the Manor was empty. In the spot formerly occupied by a 1910 photo of Corning and the cast of "Mrs. Temple's Telegram," her senior class play, there is only a bare nail. Though she was loved and admired, few tears were shed for Corning at the Manor. Here, death is a part of everyday life. "Life goes on, and you either go with it or you get left behind," Palumbo said. Then she added wistfully, "Of course, we were all hoping she'd keep going."