Still sparkling: Ellenton woman celebrates 105th birthday Saturday

srocco@bradenton.comApril 16, 2014 

ELLENTON -- Her size 10 feet were propped up on a blue suede recliner, each one wearing a shoe drenched in silver sequins.

Toms, they're called. The kind of shoes sun-kissed teenagers wear to the beach or with jeans to school.

But Bertha doesn't care. She likes how they sparkle.

Bertha Donnelly doesn't look or act or dress a day over 70, but, on Saturday, she will gather with neighbors, friends and a few of the relatives she hasn't already outlived to celebrate her 105th birthday.

She has been looking forward to this birthday breakfast for two years. After all, she hasn't been out to breakfast since 2012 when she fell getting out of the shower.

"I'm going to the breakfast on Saturday if I'm still here," she laughs.

Sometimes, for a brief moment, Donnelly gets lost in her head, tangled in her words,

but her caregiver, Barbie Olson, gently brings her back around.

• • •

She was born April 19, 1909, in Malone, N.Y., to a blacksmith, Fred, and a factory worker, Eva. She had two sisters and two brothers. She always knew she was going to be teacher.

Donnelly enrolled in Potsdam Normal School (now the State University of New York at Potsdam) and earned her degree in education. She began her career in a one-room schoolhouse and went on to teach fifth grade from 1923 to 1970.

Donnelly had boyfriends here and there, but was never ready to make a commitment.

"I went quite a long while with them, but as soon as they wanted to get serious, I dropped them," she smiles.

Only one guy in 29 years caught her eye. Patrick Donnelly. A World War II soldier who came home with a busted eye and a plate in his head. "He was good to me," she remembers.

They dated for 10 years, then married in a big church wedding. He was 39; she was 49.

The war caught up with Pat. He became a drinker, she says, and was often belligerent. Later in life, he wouldn't let his wife buy new clothes or a new chair to comfort her aching bones. Too expensive, he said.

"A lot of people wondered why she stayed," said Mary Anne Duso, Donnelly's niece. "For people her age, it was for better or for worse. A lot of times it was worse than better, but she stuck it out."

Donnelly loved her husband and he loved her back. Even in their old age, he made sure he always kissed her goodnight.

Patrick Donnelly died in December from pneumonia and renal failure. He was 94. "I thought he was going to live a lot longer than me, but the Lord took him," his wife says.

• • •

These days, life is slow, quiet.

With Patrick gone, Olson, the caretaker, takes Donnelly shopping at JCPenney and Dillard's. She buys things her husband wouldn't let her. Like sparkly shoes.

Afternoons are filled with eating and praying. She says the same prayer each day: "Take my hand oh blessed mother, hold it firm lest I fall. I grow nervous while walking, and humbly on thee I call..."

At 104, Donnelly only takes baby aspirin and eye medication. She has no pain, no disease. Just macular degeneration and blindness in one eye.

She doesn't have any secrets to a long life, but she remembers her husband always saying: "Good whiskey, good bourbon and oatmeal."

Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.

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