More residents living long, full lives, data, stories show

Of the 80 elderly men and women living at Hillcrest Spring Residential Home in Amsterdam, Ralph Boga

He never caught his Moby Dick, but Ralph Bogardus skydived, shot a moose in every Canadian province and operated the largest tannery in Fulton County in 1946.

Today, if you were to ask the 101-year-old resident of the Hillcrest Spring Residential Home in Amsterdam about his tannery days, he would begin his story by fingering an old white-backed leather glove in his left pants pocket. He was the first person to make one.

Ask him about his white whale and he will fumble in his right shirt pocket for a yellowing photograph of the Guppy, a boat he owned in Florida and rented out for charters — and then start telling his big fish story, about one that got away.

It was bigger even than the biggest fish he ever caught, an 890-pound bluefin tuna he reeled in during the 13th annual Tuna Fisherman contest in Point Jude, R.I.

“How I wanted that fish,” he said, recounting how he struggled for seven hours to reel it in. The seas were rough and it was windy and raining. From 2 to 9 p.m., Bogardus fought the fish — and he has scars to prove it.

“Finally I couldn’t reel it in, so I just cut it loose and let it go,” he said, an air of regret in his squinting eyes. “It was cold; I was wet. I went inside, took my clothes off and got in my sleeping bag. I was shaking.”

Bogardus won’t boast, but he’s a man who had goals. Too many men live their lives without goals today, he said.

Of the 80 elderly men and women living at Hillcrest Spring, Bogardus is the only one older than 100. But outside the doors of the tight-knit home are 24 other living centenarians in Montgomery County, a percentage that has increased county- and nationwide in the past 10 years, according to U.S. Census data.

New York state and county census data have not been released yet on citizens older than 100 as of 2010. But the average life expectancy for men and women has been growing steadily, and the number of New York residents 90 and older living in state nursing homes reached 1.7 million last year, data confirm.

“Our population is about 48,000 throughout the county,” said Kimberly Denis, executive director of Montgomery County’s Office for the Aging. “And to have 25 individuals 100 or older is pretty cool for us.”

They lived through world wars, got their schooling in “common sense” (as Bogardus might tell you), ate good food and had good living. They also watched as the ones they loved passed away, came to terms with hip and knee replacements and lost track of which year they married their first husband or darling wife.

‘a happy person’

When Florence Collins first moved into the Sarah Jane Sanford Home on Guy Park Avenue in 2004, home administrator Jeanne So remembers an agile 92-year-old with a beautifully clear complexion twirling in the hallway outside her bedroom door, wearing a flowing floor-length skirt.

Today, 99-year-old Collins might not twirl. But her complexion is a creamy white and her smile is as bright as it was back then.

“I was always a happy person,” Collins says reflectively. “I wasn’t moody. I wasn’t troublesome to anyone. I was happy, happy with life, happy with whatever I was doing.”

She taught fourth-graders at Amsterdam’s Vrooman Avenue School, where apartments now stand. Her husband used to ask her how she could wake up so happy on a Monday morning.

“He would say to me, ‘I can’t understand it.’ And I would say, ‘Because I like my work.’ It was something I wanted to do and I lived with it. And I still feel that I can be a teacher.”

Born two years after Bogardus in 1911, Collins has lived in Amsterdam her entire life and in the same house practically all her life. The six-family home on Pulaski Street is as much a part of Collins as her Polish heritage. Her entire family — sisters, brothers-in-law, mother, father, her first and second husbands and eventually her son — all lived in the home in the Polish section of town.

After graduating from SUNY Oneonta, Collins and her friend Rachel came back to Amsterdam to teach. Faded black-and-white photographs of her extended family and friends adorn a mirror over Collins’ dresser. In one stands Collins in front of her classroom chalkboard. Students with neatly combed hair and pressed clothing watch her, smiling as she teaches them a lesson. The photo was taken during a television special for local teachers of the year, an award Collins reluctantly accepted after finding out that it required a TV appearance.

All these years later, Collins’ students still visit her. One in particular brings her babka, a favorite Polish food.

“I would do it all over again,” Collins said. “Every minute. I look back and I have good memories about everybody, everything I did and all the people that I knew. And I meet them — people I had in school — in strange places. And if I don’t recognize them, they come and tell me they recognize me.”

At the Sanford Home, which serves 40 elderly women, Collins will be the first to turn 100, on Oct. 20. Her mother lived past 100, and her sister was almost 100 when she died. Perhaps it’s the golumbkis and pierogis that have kept her here all these years, So suggests.

But Collins doesn’t wonder. She would just smile and say she’s very happy to be here.

mixed blessing

Bogardus, on the other hand, said he never wanted to live to be 100.

“Never,” he says. “Because you look at it this way — the older you get, the more things can happen to you medically. I know about those things. I’ve been there. I’ve been through all that. You live, that’s all. My wife and I, we always had good food. We always had, we used to put it this way, we had good livin’.”

He and his wife opened a women’s clothing shop in Mayfield in 1956 called the Woodland Store.

“We lived a nice life together,” he said, staring at a picture of him and Ethel standing in front of the Woodland Store sign. “It could never be matched, no how, impossible.”

These are the things Bogardus treasures as he sits in his room all these years later at Hillcrest Spring. The nurses who offer him pills don’t know that he would prefer if they didn’t. But they know about his hunting days in Canada, and about his tuna fishing, his skydiving story and Harvey Martin, his mentor during his tannery days.

He can recall to the “T” the development process for the ladies’ glove in his pocket.

“There’s no dye on that,” he says. “This was made with methanol, like you’d put in your automobile. I developed that method. If you’re persistent, keeping at something for so long, you’re going to develop it. And that’s what I did.”

The tannery in Johnstown is long gone. But even after years of Bogardus stroking the leather backing of his glove, it appears brand new.

Categories: Schenectady County

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