Oldest living Irishwoman to turn 112 on Sunday
Kathleen Hayes Rollins Snavely, from Co Clare, emigrated to the US in 1921 and built up a successful dairy from scratch
Kathleen Snavely has lived through two world wars, the Great Depression and 18 American presidents. Photograph: Syracuse University Archives
Kathleen Hayes Rollins Snavely is getting her hair done tomorrow for her birthday.
This may not seem out of the ordinary; most people like to look good on their birthday. But this is no ordinary birthday.
On Sunday, the Co Clare- born woman turns 112. She is believed to be the oldest living Irish-born woman and the oldest person born in what is now the Republic of Ireland. Only Annie Scott, who was born in 1883 in what is now Northern Ireland, lived longer. She died in Scotland in 1996, at the age of 113, according to the Gerontology Research Group, which tracks the world’s oldest people.
A resident of Syracuse in upstate New York, Snavely, a retired businesswoman, has lived through two world wars, the Great Depression and 18 American presidents. She has outlived two husbands and some of her second husband’s children. Kathleen herself never had any children.
Until two years ago, Snavely lived independently, travelled on the bus to shop for groceries and prepared her own food. After breaking a hip, she moved to the Centers at St Camillus, a health and rehabilitation centre in Syracuse.
Media-shy, she shuns public attention, though relatives say since turning 100 she gets a kick out of telling people her age. For her age, she is in good health.
“Kathleen is a remarkable woman. She is as sharp as any of us and even sometimes a little bit sharper because she has a different perspective on the world around her,” said Bruce Moore, husband of Donna, Snavely’s great-niece, who lives in Connecticut.
Explaining just how astute she has been in recent years, Bruce recalls her commenting in 2006, well into her second century, about the risks building up in the US economy.
In addition to having the wisdom of old age, she had a strong business acumen, having built up a successful dairy in Syracuse from scratch with her husband.
“She is very much abreast and aware of the economy. Before we had our financial challenges here in the United States, that was quite a topic for her. She seemed somewhat convinced that we were heading for a recession,” he said. “At the time I said, ‘I am sorry I have to disagree with you, Aunt Kathleen – I don’t think you are right’. But she was right.”
Sister Kathy Osbelt, a friend of Kathleen’s and the founder of Francis House, a hospice in Syracuse, said Snavely regularly talks about Irish people, her family and her experiences growing up in Ireland.
“She talks about the wit and the appreciation for natural beauty. She is very funny and very feisty and loves a good story and to tell stories,” said Sr Osbelt. “It is unfortunate that more people don’t know her. She is a treasure; she really is a peach.”
Snavely received a letter and medal from President Michael D Higgins last year. A record 423 people received the centenarian bounty of €2,540 from the President in 2013. The award marks the occasion of an Irish person’s 100th birthday. Started in 1940, the award was increased in value to €2,540 in 2000, and eight years ago was extended to Irish citizens living abroad.
The Gerontology Research Group classifies people like Kathleen Snavely and others living over 110 years of age as “super-centenarians”.
Kathleen is in a very exclusive worldwide club: as of January 26th, 2014, the group validated 67 living super-centenarians – 63 women and four men. The oldest living person, the group says, is Japanese woman Misao Okawa in Osaka, who will turn 116 on March 5th.
Kathleen Hayes was born in Feakle, Co Clare, on February 16th, 1902. Ireland was then under the rule of Britain, at the time reigned over by King Edward VII, the current monarch’s great-grandfather.
The 1911 census lists Kathleen as an eight-year-old “scholar” who could read and write English and Irish. Her father Patrick (42) was an agricultural labourer and there were three other members in the family home at Garraun in Feakle: her mother Ellen, 36, and her older sisters Anna May and Lena.
Kathleen worked as a business apprentice in Dublin briefly, before emigrating to the US. She arrived in New York on September 30th, 1921, at the age of 20, from Queenstown (Cobh), Co Cork, on a ship called The Scythia , according to the American Family Immigration History Centre at Ellis Island, the hub for millions of Irish and other emigrants who landed in the US from Europe.
She came to the US virtually penniless and lived with her mother’s brother on Marcellus Street in Syracuse, 250 miles north of New York city. She found work as a waitress at the Syracuse State school, according to The Post-Standard , the local newspaper in Syracuse, and later at a department store.
She married Roxie Rollins, a young cook, on her 22nd birthday in 1924. They were married for 44 years. They opened the Seneca Dairy, a long-running profitable business and a popular ice-cream parlour, in 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, working seven days a week to make the enterprise a success.
The business grew to operate out of two locations and employ 40 people.
Donna Moore remembers Kathleen giving her a little VIP card so she could bring her friends into the dairy to make ice-cream sundaes.
She described the dairy as “very innovative” – they were the first in the area to sell milk in glass bottles. Competitors weren’t happy with the innovation; they smashed the bottles when they first appeared on doorsteps.
Roxie Rollins died in 1968 and Snavely got married for a second time in 1970 to Jesse Snavely from Pennsylvania. He died in 1988. In 2000 Kathleen donated $1 million to the Syracuse University’s school of management in memory of her first husband.
Those who know her put Snavely’s longevity down to having a positive outlook on life.
“She always worked very hard. She just had that work ethic – by having that approach gives you longevity,” said Bruce Moore. “She never had any intention of retiring. She has a can-do attitude and takes life as it is.”