A New Year and a New Century

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – If you’re just meeting her, one of the first things you’ll notice about Irma Ruppel is that the woman is a snappy dresser. On Dec. 29, sitting in the Expressions Specialized Memory Care Home, Irma wore a striking red jacket and matching skirt, with her nails painted the same bright shade.

The second thing you’ll realize is she’s quite funny, followed quickly by the understanding that she’s also kind, gentle and very much loved by those around her.

As the world moves into 2012, Irma continues to make her way through a life that started in 1911 and has collected a century’s worth of memories, family and friends.

On Jan. 3, Irma turns 101 years old. For her birthday, students at Glacier Gateway Elementary and Stillwater Christian schools will send her birthday cards. The plan is to get 101 missives for Irma to hang on a bulletin board, says Kendi Strowbridge of Expressions Specialized Memory Care.

Irma has only been in the Flathead for one-tenth of her life, spending the rest of it in Toledo, Ohio. She went to school and worked there and got married to Garfield Alvin Ruppel, who liked to be called Al.

When asked how long she was married, Irma offers an easy smile and shrugs her small shoulders.

“Oh gosh, I don’t know,” she says. “All my life.”

Her daughter Ann Shelt, who also lives at Expressions, says her mom and dad got married on June 15, 1931, and had her in 1935. Ann was an only child because Al, who liked hunting, fishing and golf, watched his wife give birth and didn’t want her to go through that painful experience again, Irma said.

While in Toledo, Irma became known as the “candy lady,” because she had a candy dish that the nearby Catholic school students would visit when they walked by. She was also an avid gardener.

Ann remembers her mother’s great baking skills, which Irma has put to use making Danishes a couple of times at Expressions. Strowbridge said that a few months ago, Irma was baking while wearing an apron that said, “You Bet I Work Here,” complete with flour on her face.

Neighbors and friends were a big part of the Ruppels’ lives in Toledo. When Al passed away in 1973, their neighbors were there to support Irma, Ann said. They still receive Christmas cards and flowers from them.

Ann and her husband Paul, who passed away in 2008, decided to move Irma to Montana in September of 2001. The 9-11 attacks made the move difficult, Ann said, and Irma recalls being reticent to leave the place she had lived her whole life.

Once here, Irma joined Ann’s church, the United Church of Christ in Kalispell, where the congregation has provided great support to both women, Strowbridge said.

While mother and daughter have their own rooms on opposite sides of Expressions’ dining room, they spend their waking hours together, mostly in Ann’s room. Ann knits, crochets and “makes photos” on her computer, while Irma generally snoozes.

They play card games and listen to the radio, usually tuned to the Christian station. Irma says she doesn’t have much music preference, adding with a laugh, “I just play easy.”

In the years that Strowbridge has known Irma, she said the centenarian has been easygoing, pleasant and a good mother.

“I don’t think I have ever, ever, ever heard Irma say a hard word to anyone,” Stowbridge said.

So what is Irma’s secret to a long life? Ann says her mother is careful about her diet, which Irma remarked consists of “anything.” Both women cautioned people to “watch the drinking” and neither smokes.

“I tried it a couple of times,” Irma said. “I just didn’t like it.”

Friendship and family are important as well, they said. Irma, who has grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren, admits she didn’t have a longevity plan in place that allowed her to live 101 years.

“I don’t know how,” she said. “I just did it.”