107-year-old is ‘young at heart,’ has tales to tell
Florida woman plans to have last say on her legacy
POINTE VEDRA, Fla. – Bobbie West was born in 1916, the bloodiest year of World War I. She spent years as a journalist, beginning as a 16-year-old “copy girl,” and then as a reporter for papers in her native New York state. She remembers interviewing hoboes hitching rides on freight trains (they tried to make it sound romantic but it really wasn’t) and writing about the oldest bellboy in town.
She took up journalism again after she moved into a retirement community in Ponte Vedra, Florida, interviewing and writing about fellow residents who caught her interest. She continued her craft through her 80s, through her 90s, and then – after singing in a cabaret show she staged for her 100th birthday – well into her 11th decade on Earth.
A couple of months after her 107th birthday, it was her turn to be interviewed, outside in a welcome breeze in a favorite shaded spot near a fountain she can see from her apartment at Vicar’s Landing.
West gave a little smile, appraising the situation. “When I die, which is going to be tomorrow or the next day or the next, you’ll have a whole new angle.”
Once a journalist …
She feels good, she says, at 107, and though her vision is poor and hearing is sometimes difficult, she’s still mentally sharp. “But I know my body is breaking down,” she said.
Later, she looks around the courtyard at the retirement center, where she’s lived for about 28 years.
“Can you think of a better place to end your life,” she said, “with a fountain and these flowers and this weather?”
West has already written her own obituary and planned her funeral service, during which Wendee Rogers, her longtime friend, bookkeeper and advocate, will read a letter that West wrote to her children.
“Wendee and I worked it out,” West said. “It’ll be great. My boys are going to sing. My granddaughter is going to sing. My grandsons are going to sing. It’s going to be a musical.”
She kidded her interviewer. “You want to come?” she said, breaking into another smile. Then she nodded briskly and gave this tip: “Watch the paper.”
The Great War, Mussolini, a lifetime love
It’s 1918, and this, she says, is one of her earliest memories. Her mother is stricken by the Spanish flu, and her father is just home from the Great War. He is an architect, and the Army sent him to Europe to design barracks. But all the barracks were already built, so he was made a lieutenant and given the job of deciding which pilots would fly missions each day.
But who was he to decide who would live or quite possibly die?
“It was his job to send out these young men, not knowing whether they would get back or not,” West said. “It was a terrible, terrible job. He hated it.”
Back home in Binghamton, N.Y., with his wife sick, his job now was to take care of their baby girl. He would rock her most of the day to keep her calm, humming the whole time. But if he stopped humming, Bobbie (born Barbara) would prompt him: “Daddy, hmmhmm some more.”
Another memory: “At the age of 12 I met my future husband at dancing school. I finally nabbed him 10 years later,” she said. “I had my eye on him. He didn’t have a chance of escaping, once I made up my mind.”
Ward West was the one. “He was a beautiful dancer. He was good-looking, and he was a jock. He was everything wonderful,” she said. They married in 1940 and had 61 more years together.
Before the marriage, though, another memory: She’s 19, touring Europe with her father, who was big in Rotary International. That’s how she finds herself, on a hot summer day in Rome, inside a reception room, part of a group waiting to meet Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
He eventually reaches her. She’s eye-to-eye with him, she says, and she’s just 5-foot-2. Outside the building, a big crowd has gathered, chanting for the dictator. Mussolini goes out on a balcony to address them and as he does he takes West by the arm, plucks a red rose from a vase, and gives it to her to hold as she joins him on the balcony.
He puts on a hat, steps on a box, and looks down on the crowd. It’s a festival day in Rome, and it’s broiling, and in the audience below him are many women in traditional costumes. Mussolini looks down at West and says, in English, “Poor things, they must be so hot.” She’s told that story many times over the decades. “Well anyway, that’s my claim to fame whether I like it or not,” she said. Then she chuckled. “My children think that’s the only thing I ever did my whole life.”
A self-written obituary
West’s self-written obituary begins like this: “Barbara Cummings West 7/11/16 - ” leaving a space for another date still to come.
It continues: “Born in Brooklyn, NY but grew up in Binghamton, NY until marriage to A. Ward West in 1940. Attended the University of Rochester and Cambridge University in England. Had careers in journalism, radio, TV, advertising and public relations.”
She and Ward were married on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts and had a house there for years. They had four children, two boys and two girls; their daughter Anne, whom they called Andy, died in 2018.
Ward West died in a hospital on Nantucket in October 2001, just before he and Bobbie were due to return for the winter to Vicar’s Landing. They’d moved to the retirement community in 1995, after 15 years in Sea Island, Ga., so they could be closer to the Mayo Clinic, where he was receiving care.
After his death, Bobbie West kept busy. She socialized, led trivia events, sung, acted in plays and edited and published a book of the memories of the community’s World War II veterans.
At 105 she retired as “events reporter” for the Vicar’s Voice, the community newsletter, for which she also wrote an annual and much-awaited Christmas letter to her late husband. She began each letter with a “Dearheart,” and then filled him in on the things that, sadly, he was not there to see, from the fresh paint on the community buildings to a pandemic that was sweeping the globe.
And she’s been a frequent user of the Vicar’s Landing swimming pool, which on her 107th birthday was named after her.
She needs the time in the water: “It gives me some vigor. I can feel things coming back to life that I thought weren’t working anymore. It makes you feel so good, to get in there.”
West said she’s always been active in sports and long enjoyed golf, tennis and skiing. “I was not great at everything,” she said. “But I did everything. Let’s leave it at that.”
That seems profound, she’s told.
“You think so? Well, if you think so.”
‘Her calendar is crazy’
“Isn’t she a pip?” said her daughter, Sally West. “You can’t make this stuff up, it’s just unbelievable. Especially this last week when she was in the hospital with this and that. I thought, this might be it. But no, she’s back swimming and out for lunch.”
Her mother has always been strong-willed and confident, said her daughter, who turns 80 next month and splits her time between Cape Cod and New Smyrna Beach. “Trust me when I tell you, my mother is feisty and she stands up for what she wants.”
Rogers, her assistant, has known West since 1996 and marvels at her drive and toughness. West was hospitalized for four days last week but then was able to get back in the swimming pool for 50 minutes one day. On the next day she interviewed a 99-year-old Vicar’s Landing resident who’d been a friend of President Harry S. Truman’s daughter, Margaret, in front of about 15 people.
“Bobbie is driven. ‘I’ve got to go read The New York Times, whether I can see it or not.’ ‘I want to go the library.’ She has markers she wants to get done every day and makes sure she accomplishes them,” Rogers said. “Friends and relationships and social engagement are important to her. Her calendar is crazy.”
Local piano legend Gene Nordan is a longtime friend who helped her put on the cabaret show for her 100th birthday. She always wanted to be a saloon singer, she’s told him. Her favorite song: “Memories of You,” from 1930.
When she was in her late 90s, she was part of a group that went with Nordan on a cruise to the tip of South America. And when he started playing on the piano each night on the ship, West would start singing and practically the whole ship would gather around.
She’s always there too, singing, when he does his regular gig at Vicar’s Landing. “She’s an institution,” Nordan said. “Everybody at Vicar’s treats her like a general. Everybody knows Bobbie West. She’s 107 years old, loving and giving, but don’t underestimate her. I use the word strong. She can be blunt if she knows she’s right. A good blunt though – she doesn’t go too far.”
She can also charm, Nordan said.
“She says, ‘Gene, I know I’m 20 years older than you, maybe 25 years older, and I know I’ll go to heaven first, but it won’t be heaven until you get there.’ ”
The secret to a long life
Live to be 100 or more and people are going to ask you the secret to a long life. For years, West had a go-to reply: “Because I haven’t died yet. That’s a smart-ass answer.”
At her 105th birthday, a champagne cocktail party, she came up with a new answer as her sons, Austin and David, serenaded her with an old Frank Sinatra song: “Fairy tales can come true/It can happen to you/ If you’re young at heart.”
Young at heart, she figured. Now that made some sense.
So here’s her advice: “Stay busy. Stay moving. Of course I can’t see, I can’t hear. Otherwise I’m fine.”
West knows she’s been blessed over all these years, blessed with all this living.
“I have to tell you that I have had a very, very lucky, gifted life,” she said. “I don’t know how I deserved it, but boy, I’ve got to tell you, not a day goes by I don’t think, ‘Are you still here?’ ”