Mrs. Sarah Knauss, the World's Oldest Person, Turns 119

Saturday, September 25, 1999; Mike Frassinelli, "119 -- That's a Lot of Candles -- The World's Oldest Person Has Been Around Longer than Many Modern Conveniences," p. A3, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania; September 25, 1999).

Mrs. Sarah Knauss began her final year as a teenager Friday, unless she lives for another 100 years. The world's oldest person turned 119, marking her birthday at Phoebe Home in Allentown, Pennsylvania with a trip to the hair stylist, a taste of crab patty, and more than a few bites of butterscotch sundae and chocolate turtles. Asked if she made a wish when she blew out the candles on an iced chocolate, vanilla and strawberry cake, Knauss delayed for a moment before replying, "No." After 119 birthdays, how many wishes can possibly be left? And how many other people can say they were born in '80 -- as in, 1880?

Knauss, listed as the oldest person in the Guiness Book of World Records, spent a decidedly quieter birthday Friday than the one two years ago, after it was determined she was the oldest American. Then, rows of television cameras captured her every move. Friday, her 95-year-old daughter, Kitty Sullivan, wanted a low-key event with family, friends, and fellow Phoebe Home residents. But that didn't mean Knauss, who has since become the oldest of the world's six billion people, wasn't excited about the day. She awakened at 6:30 AM, three hours earlier than usual.

"Is someone going to help me get out of here?" she asked a nursing aide from her bed early Friday. "She started to put her legs over the side," said nurse's aide Carol Smith, who considers Knauss to be a mentor. At another point, Knauss kidded fellow residents of Phoebe's west unit: "A hundred nineteen? I just can't be 119."

Knauss preceded the adding machine, the camera, local anesthesia, the ballpoint pen and the submarine. She was born before and outlasted Franklin D. Roosevelt and Hess's in Allentown.

Sullivan wanted her mother to eat more of her crab patty before turning to the sweets, but no 95-year-old whippersnapper was going to tell Sarah Knauss what to do on her birthday. She took another bite of whipped cream. "She's doing fine, the same as she has been," said Marcella Moyer Schick, who alerted Guiness about Knauss and backed up the oldest claim with marriage and Census records. "She obviously is a very elderly woman, but she continues to get out of bed every day and goes to activities, especially things that have to do with children. She loves to see the children," added Schick, executive director of the Phoebe-Devitt Homes Foundation.

The feeling was mutual for First Step daycare children who sang "Happy Birthday" and other songs for Knauss on Thursday. "The children are just thrilled, they are so honored when she is there," said Kathy Bohnenberger, director of activities for the Phoebe Home. Knauss, a former seamstress, has been a resident of the home since she was 110. The Phoebe family hopes she sees yet another millennium. Knauss' daughter also lives in the Phoebe community. Knauss' grandson is in his early 70s (the third generation of Social Security in the same family), her great-granddaughter has approached her 50s, her great-great granddaughter is in her late 20s, and her great-great-great grandson is four. Her late husband, Abraham, was once Lehigh County recorder of deeds, and Knauss has been receiving pension checks for four decades.

Knauss' hearing has deteriorated and she travels by wheelchair. Life magazine featured the six generations of Knauss' family early this year. She doesn't talk a great deal, but the former Sarah Clark, who moved from Luzerne County to Bethlehem more than a century ago, has impressed nurse's aide Smith with her dignified manner. "She has an attitude of live and let go," Smith said. "She has a real serenity. She's also very kind. She's very grateful." Knauss broke up the room when, after her daughter said she was being driven to her residence by a man named John, wondered: "Is he coming to take me, too?"

Knauss still has an affinity for chocolate and likes watching the cockatiels, parakeets, and lovebirds that chirp away at the Phoebe Home. She still watches her favorite television channel, the QVC shopping network. The dining area of the Phoebe Home was adorned with banners commemorating Knauss' birthday. Knauss -- decked out in an ivory crocheted dress, ivory cashmere sweater and pearls -- was given a lunch of crab patty, mashed sweet potatoes, cole slaw, and creamed corn. Her attention was diverted, however, by the butterscotch sundae and chocolate turtles -- no surprise to the Phoebe staff. The cake two years ago had 117 candles, but the latest was a pared version that had the numbers one, one, and nine. "When you let off that many candles," explained activities director Bohnenberger, "you let off a lot of smoke, and we thought the fire alarm would go off."

TWO PHOTOS by Cesar L. Laure, The Morning Call

CAPTION: Sarah Knauss, 119, (left) celebrates her birthday with her daughter Kitty Sullivan, 95, at her residence in the Phoebe Home in Allentown. (PHOTO appeared on p. A1, 2nd Edition.)