Smiles keep centenarian young


Bernice King never expected she’d end up in a “old folks home” when she took up residence at the Manhattanville Health Care Center for the first time five years ago.

She and her sister would scoff at places like that in their younger days, and King knew it would take a lot to get her there. Like living more than a century of life, with what appears to be plenty more to go.

Manhattanville residents, as well as friends and family — many going back decades — surrounded King on Tuesday to celebrate a milestone most of us will never see: her 110th birthday.

“Being a nice person can really get you far in life,” said Henry Coshburn Jr., King’s nephew and closest living relative. “She always has a smile on her face, and she really enjoys life, every single day.”

King was born April 4, 1907. Back then, a Roosevelt was in office — Teddy. “Ben-Hur” was a box office leader, except it was long before the Charlton Heston remake. And who knows how much a gallon of milk cost in those days … it was easier to just get it from the cow yourself.

King grew up in Flushing, graduated from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and had dreams of becoming a fashion designer in the Roaring ‘20s. Except the doors of success would be closed to her, the descendant of slaves from Antigua.

Instead, King would become a seamstress, and a good one at that. She’d marry a World War II veteran, who died just a few years after the war, and would never have children. Yet King filled her life with joy, Coshburn said, traveling the world with her sister — Coshburn’s mother — and jumping between homes in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Saratoga.

“My sister would never go near the water,” King said about their visits to Saratoga. “I would, though. I went in the water all the time.”

Long life runs in the family. Her sister lived to be 98, and King? She’s not slowing down.

In fact, she lived independently until she was 105, when hip surgery several years earlier finally caught up to her, making it difficult to get out of bed. She has made the Riverdale area her home for years now while Coshburn, an executive vice president with an energy company, lives just up the road on Netherland Avenue.

His visits to Manhattanville are frequent, every time amazed at how active King is, and how she never misses a beat. She’s a living history book, at least as far as the family goes, all the way back to her grandfather, A.M.E. Bishop William Derrick, who served on the USS Monitor during the Battle of Hampton Roads during the Civil War.

Living a long life isn’t always easy, either. A couple times, King fought back tears, remembering many of the people she knew and loved along the way who are no longer with her.

King’s trip through the years hasn’t gone unnoticed. She’s received letters celebrating her more recent birthdays from nearly everyone who is anyone in government, including a note last year from President Barack Obama and the former first lady, Michelle Obama.

More letters are coming for the 110th, Coshburn said. And he can’t wait to put them all on display — when everyone comes back next year to celebrate Bernice King’s big 111.