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Lover of ice cream, eggnog, people and life lives to 102

The very long life of Elsa Anderson _ who died Tuesday (Jan. 20, 2004) at the age of 102{ _ defied the conventional wisdom about the importance of a low-fat diet.

Mrs. Anderson didn't drink or smoke. But she buttered both sides of her bread, was a devoted consumer of ice cream and was extremely partial to eggnog. As such, daughter Ruth Vanderburg says: "She was a heavy woman most of her life."

But Mrs. Anderson had extremely good genes. After reaching 100, she participated in a Harvard University study of centenarians. Researchers found that her body was especially geared to handle fats.

"Why was she able to do it?" daughter Grace Conger muses. "I think it was the makeup of her blood chemistry."

Mrs. Anderson's death came the same day a written statement about her longevity was entered into the congressional record by U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville. It came two weeks after she was honored along with eight other local centenarians at a party hosted by Hernando County and SunTrust Bank, Nature Coast. Mrs. Anderson was the oldest honoree at the party, and her cheerful face was prominently featured in a Hernando Times account of the event the next day.

Mrs. Anderson was born in Sweden on April 16, 1901. Queen Victoria died that year. Marconi sent the first trans-Atlantic wireless signal. And the United States' federal budget was $530-million _ which these days buys you one space shuttle mission and is just a hair under St. Petersburg's current budget.

Amid the great wave of European immigration to America, Elsa, 1, arrived in New York with her family. As a toddler, she somehow found her way into the streets of Greenwich Village, where a stranger discovered her sleeping between the rails used by horse-drawn trolley carts.

A newspaper clipping describes the event and is a prized family possession, Vanderburg said. It speaks of how the girl with golden curls and a blue gingham dress slept peacefully in the arms of a police sergeant and that her father soon showed up to collect her.

With her husband, Gustaf, Mrs. Anderson had two daughters and for a time worked in a sewing shop. She never owned a car or even drove one. And she never in her life owed a penny of debt, said Conger, her daughter. She and Gustaf managed the feat _ even through the teeth of the Great Depression _ by renting an apartment until they could pay cash for a house in New Jersey.

She balanced her own checkbook until she reached her late 90s and saved a few dollars from each pension check until the day she died, Conger said.

During her life, Mrs. Anderson had chance encounters with President John F. Kennedy and actor Vincent Price. She made eye contact and exchanged waves with Kennedy when she emerged from a New York subway and encountered the president's motorcade, Conger said.

At an airport in Toledo, Ohio, Price apologized for cutting in front of Mrs. Anderson as they both started out the same door onto the tarmac. He came back to hold the door for her, said Vanderburg, who was there too.

Airports, it seems, are the settings of several anecdotes that reveal a little bit about Mrs. Anderson's gentle nature.

Both daughters said that upon disembarking from a plane, Mrs. Anderson would inevitably have a gaggle of new friends to introduce to awaiting family members _ all the people who had sat near her during the flight.

Her kindly face and trusting manner were so reassuring that one traveling mother left her baby alone with Mrs. Anderson for 10 minutes while she went to the restroom.

And in another instance, Mrs. Anderson's brief chat with a man of Asian descent left such an impression that, upon reaching the gate, she learned that he had paid to upgrade her seat to first class.

In her final months, Mrs. Anderson lived at Heron Pointe Rehabilitation and Health Center in Brooksville. Social services director Robin Finch said she received a marriage proposal as recently as last month. Her suitor was 86. She turned him down for being too young.

After a century of excellent health, Mrs. Anderson was hospitalized recently with a urinary tract infection that had led to other problems. On Monday she had spent the day with her family and seemed to be saying goodbye, Vanderburg said.

That night, at Brooksville Regional Hospital, she was undergoing a procedure to relieve some of her problems when she died calmly, Vanderburg said. Two nurses were holding her hand.

Later that morning, Rep. Brown-Waite entered a written statement into the House record honoring Mrs. Anderson without knowing she had died. A spokeswoman for the congresswoman said the statement may be revised to reflect Mrs. Anderson's passing.

Mrs. Anderson's daughters said their mother frequently told them that she wouldn't change a thing about her life, even the tough times during the Depression.

"We're going to miss her absolutely. The sadness is for our loss. But we are happy for our mother's long life," said Vanderburg.

Mrs. Anderson's death left Heron Pointe _ where she was the oldest resident and its "matriarch" _ a bit quieter than before, Finch said. There are plans to remember her Friday _ the same day as her funeral _ with a special treat, Finch said.

Perhaps with her beloved eggnog, if there's any to be found in January.