Age really is just a number for people like Dealia Hughes.
The Buffalo resident lived on her own until she was 99. She cooked her own meals, shopped for her own groceries and handled her own finances.
From memories of driving one of the first cars in America to her job as a “Rosie the Riveter,” Hughes has lived through milestones in American history that many people can only read about.
She now lives at HighPointe on Michigan, a health care facility, where staff, friends and relatives threw her a 100th birthday party Wednesday afternoon that was full of flowers, cards and well-wishes, including a birthday card from President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
“I’m amazed she’s as sharp as she is and looks as good as she does,” said partygoer Larrone B. Williams, president of the Fillmore-Glenwood Block Club, who met Hughes about nine years ago when she lived in that community.
These days, Hughes entertains HighPointe staff and residents with her stories, but her memory is not as sharp as it used to be. Sometimes it falters, or past events become cloudy.
Fortunately, some of her relatives and friends who have listened to her stories for decades have been keeping records of them.
One of Hughes’ earliest memories, for instance, was watching soldiers arrive home from World War I in 1918.
“She told me that story, too,” said Hughes’ niece, Bonnie Elliott, in a telephone interview.
Elliot lives in Pennsylvania, and her mother, Lee Harvey, is Hughes’ 87-year-old sister. Elliot and Harvey could not make it to the party, but Elliott sent a large bouquet of flowers.
Born in Union, S.C., Hughes attended a one-room schoolhouse from first through eighth grades, with about 30 other children. She graduated from Sims High School.
Her earliest means of transportation was a neighbor’s mule, but she remembers driving a Ford Model T.
“In those days, 25 cents worth of fuel would last three days,” Hughes said.
At 17, she married William “Jack” Hughes, who, like many Southerners, went to Buffalo to find factory work. When he landed a job at Bethlehem Steel, he sent for his wife.
One of the most memorable jobs she had was during World War II, when women were hired to build airplanes because many men were away at war. Hughes was a riveter for the Curtiss-Wright plant on Genesee Street in Cheektowaga.
“Her job was to put rivets on the C-41 and C-46 cargo airplanes,” said Tresie Coggins, Hughes’ friend for the past 20 years. She also put gas and brake pedals in the planes, and boasted to Coggins that she never had one bad inspection.
Another job was as a wedding planner, including the daughters of John Lord O’Brian, for whom the building that houses the University at Buffalo Law School is named. She also worked as a cashier in an Allentown antique store for 25 years.
“She read the newspaper from cover to cover,” Elliott said. “And when we called her on the phone, she knew all the world events.”
As for her secret to a long life, Hughes said: “Go to bed early. Get up early. Don’t drink and don’t smoke.”