First published in the April 21, print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
Her life transcends historical landmarks. San Marino resident Ruth Cornell remembers World War I “very clearly” and with a few knocks on wood seems well on her way to surviving the second American pandemic that has taken place during her rich lifetime.
Locally, Cornell is celebrated as the person who is indeed older than San Marino, a tagline she earned nine years ago, when both Cornell and the city celebrated their centennials.
And like the city, Cornell turned 109 years old. Of course, as she was quick to point out nine years ago, her birthday is on March 28 but the city didn’t come along for a couple more weeks — April 13, 1913.
This year, four generations of Cornells assembled at the family home to celebrate Ruth Cornell’s birthday.
Cornell is already in rare air. According to statistics, just 1 in 5 million people in developed countries live until the age of 110 — what is known as a supercentenarian — meaning that just over 60 are alive today in the United States.
Cornell is in great spirits and pretty good health. She said she lives her life with “no hurts” but a slight regret that she isn’t able to walk as much or as well as she once did. She still lives in the home near the Crowell Public Library that she and her husband, John, purchased on March 28, 1958. Her 45th birthday.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she said with a chuckle. “It rained for more than a week straight.”
With her husband somewhat preoccupied, Cornell pitched in and participated in the negotiations that were needed to close the buy.
“It was very rare at the time for a woman to be involved in the purchase of a home,” Cornell said. “Everyone thought I was crazy!”
It’s doubtful there is anyone on the planet who has that sentiment now.
When asked what she might consider the secret to her longevity, Cornell said “I don’t have a darned secret to my name.”
The Cornells had previously lived in a home in San Marino on Hilliard Street they had bought in 1941 while John Cornell was in Washington, D.C., on maneuvers while an officer in the U.S. Navy. Later, he was an L.A. Times editor and founder of the Los Angeles Press Club. John Cornell passed away in 2004.
“But I have always been happy,” she continued. “I had a happy childhood and a happy marriage. I haven’t really had a great sorrow in my life except when my grandmother died. I was 12 or 13. She was my mother’s mother. I adored her. Losing her was really a blow.
“But I am an optimist. I have never been down in the dumps about anything. In fact, people get sort of mad at me because I am disgustingly happy. My girlfriends don’t see what makes me so happy. I am just a natural optimist. I very much believe in having a sense of humor, taking things in stride.”
Cornell enjoyed swimming and horseback riding during her younger years. “Anything active,” she said. She was a Red Cross nurses’ aide, Scout leader and remains active at San Marino Community Church. And though she isn’t as active as she would like to be, Cornell is still officially a docent at the Huntington Library, Art Gallery and Botanical Gardens.
“I was active for over 30 years, but I had to give it up because I don’t walk so well,” she said. “But my heart is always at the Huntington!”
She recalled her first visit to the iconic institution.
“It was 1929 when my father took me to the Huntington Library,” Cornell said. “It was the first place we visited when we came to this part of the country. I remember Blue Boy, Pinkie. At that time, it was all so new to me.”
Cornell reached celebrity status nine years ago, when San Marino celebrated its centennial. Cornell was present at Lacy Park when an all-city photo was taken and also at a dinner party held at the Huntington. At both events, she was asked to cut the cake and take the first slice. She got off her now-iconic line at another centennial another event, when she looked at several city staffers who were outfitted in matching polo shirts that touted San Marino’s first 100 years.
“You know I’m older than you,” she said while gesturing toward the group. “You didn’t come around until April.”
San Marino resident Donna Anding was involved in San Marino’s centennial celebration in 2013, where she got to know Cornell well.
“I would say that I got to ride on her coattails,” Anding said. “She was quite the celebrity. Everyone wanted to talk to Ruth.”
Hopefully, they now want to listen to Ruth. When asked what advice she would offer to a young person in this current age, Cornell said “Don’t make enemies.”
“Love everybody and be friendly with everybody. People used to kid me and say I was too nice and they thought I was wishy-washy. But I don’t remember being cross with anybody. I have just been amiable about everything I have to do.”