Omahan Thelma Sutcliffe doesn't give a hoot about being America's oldest living person, but she bristles at the restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"She's just looking forward to the day that I can finally eat with her in the dining room again," said Luella "Lou" Mason, a longtime friend. "She tells me, 'I know we have to go by the rules, but I don't like it.'"
Sutcliffe, born Oct. 1, 1906, and Mason became friends while living at Elmwood Tower near 52nd and Leavenworth streets. They have remained close since Thelma moved in 2017 to Brighton Gardens senior living center near 93rd Street and Western Avenue.
The Gerontology Research Group said Sutcliffe became the nation's oldest living person and seventh-oldest in the world on April 17 when Hester Ford, a 115-year-old woman, died in North Carolina. The second-oldest American is Maria Branas Morera, who was born in California on March 4, 1907. She now lives in Spain.
"I'm happy (Brighton Gardens) is keeping things locked down because it's keeping everyone healthy, but Thelma is as determined as ever to do what she wants to do," Mason said. "She asks me every time I visit, 'Are you going to eat with me today?' It breaks my heart that I can't."
Until visitors are allowed in the dining room, Thelma is taking all her meals in her room. Mason, who has Sutcliffe's power of attorney, calls the senior living center 24 hours ahead of time to schedule visits. Sutcliffe's hearing and sight are fading, Mason said, but her mind is still "very sharp."
Sutcliffe received her COVID shots at the earliest opportunity, Mason said. Testing her for the coronavirus, however, proved to be a non-starter.
"They went in to test her for COVID and they told her that I had approved the test," Mason said. "She looked at (the swab) and looked up at the person holding it and said, 'You're not going to be sticking that thing up my nose. You can tell Lou to stick it up hers.'"
At 114 years of age and 209 days as of Wednesday, Sutcliffe has lived through two World Wars, the 1918 flu pandemic and countless other calamities. Married in 1924, her husband, Bill, died in the 1970s. The couple had no children. A 93-year-old nephew living in Arizona typically visits her on her birthday.
Mason said Sutcliffe brushes off talk about her longevity, including her status as the nation's oldest person. She is "very particular about her appearance," Mason said, and doesn't allow photos unless everything is just right.
"As far as her age, she doesn't believe in worrying at all," Mason said. "She always says, 'What good does it do to worry?' I think that's how you live to be 114 years old."
The cost of COVID: Remembering lives lost in Southeast Nebraska
They were teachers and farmers and factory workers and homemakers. They played the piano, fixed old cars, danced to the Beach Boys, cuddled their grandchildren.
They loved to ice fish, gab with friends, read, run marathons, bowl, wander antique stores.
They were our co-workers and neighbors and friends. Our parents. Our spouses.
They all have one thing in common. They died from COVID-19, a virus that arrived in Nebraska in March 2020, claiming its first life in Lancaster County a month later.
These stories represent a fraction of the lives lost in Southeast Nebraska, but they are our way of paying respect to each and every one.
We'd like to share the stories of others from Southeast Nebraska who have lost their lives to COVID-19. If you would like to have your loved one added to our online tribute, please email your contact information to: email@example.com
Jack Fields, 87, died of COVID-19 on Dec. 8. He spent his career fixing copy machines and making friends and creating memories for his children and grandchildren.
Phyllis "Phyl" Maly, 87, died of COVID-19 on Jan. 14. She was an artist, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and a woman at home in her own skin.
Beth Smith, 64, died of complications of COVID-19 on Jan. 20. The redheaded woman loved music and parties and adventure and was a loyal friend, sister, aunt and partner.
Lillian "Lil" Gibson, 61, died of COVID-19 on Nov. 2. The dialysis nurse and marathon runner was small but mighty with a big smile and warm personality.
Julie Koch: She taught us kids to be independent, strong, courteous, respectful and kind. Her pragmatic outlook on life earned her many friends wherever she was living or working. She rarely showed a temper, seeming to always take life in stride.
Wanda Darlene Hedges was a strong woman who raised her family on a farm near Bennet. Sometimes she worked at a nearby grocery store, but she was mostly a full-time mother.
Anna Sales, 69, died of COVID-19 on Nov. 6; four days later her husband Chuck Sales, 88, also died of the virus. The couple loved to bowl, travel, serve their church and listen to Elvis music.
Orva Samuelson, 95, died of COVID-19 on May 22. She and her late husband loved to dance and play cards and after she raised her daughter she became an Avon lady and turned customers into friends.
Tam Mai, 80, died of COVID-19 last May. The man from Vietnam was a protective big brother and a devoted son and grandfather who taught his grandchildren to study hard and be respectful.
Nadene Stull, 94, died Dec. 12 from complications of COVID-19. She lived a full life as a bookkeeper and mother of three sons who later went on to become a lay minister in the Methodist church.
Janet Ann Jodais, a caring mother known for her love of reading, crafting and church life, died Oct. 8 of COVID-19 in Lincoln at age 83.
This spring, the Journal Star set out to honor the lives of those lost to COVID-19. The families were eager to share the stories of those they loved.