Sarah Knauss, oldest person, dies at 119
World's oldest person dies at 119 in Allentown nursing home
By RON DEVLIN
Of The Morning Call
The oldest person in the world, 119-year-old Sarah Knauss, died Thursday in an Allentown nursing home -- two days short of seeing the year 2000.
''It was a shock to us, she always bounced back,'' said Kathy Jacoby, Knauss' great-granddaughter, ''We'll miss her, she's always been there.''
Matriarch of six generations living at once, Knauss' death leaves her 96-year-old daughter, Kathryn ''Kitty'' Butz Sullivan, as head of the family. Three generations of the family gathered in Sullivan's West Allentown apartment last night, consoling each other after the first death in the family in 31 years.
When she was born on Sept. 24, 1880, Rutherford B. Hayes was president, the nation had only 38 states and the Statue of Liberty had not yet occupied her berth in New York Harbor.
Quietly, the life-long homemaker bore witness to the assassination of three American presidents, the fighting of two world wars, the advent of the Atomic Age and the landing of American astronauts on the moon.
''Mrs. Knauss was an extraordinary woman who pushed the outer limits of longevity,'' said state Sen. Charles Dent of Allentown, who attended her 115th birthday. ''This is a sad occasion, but she certainly had an eventful life.''
Dent, whose parents once lived next door to Knauss, marveled at the length of a life that spanned 12 decades.
''The country was still in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War when she was born,'' Dent said. ''It's hard for me to comprehend that this woman lived in nearly three centuries.''
Joe Hess, administrator of Phoebe Home, where Knauss lived for 10 years, said she died about 3 p.m. Thursday. She had no known illness at her death, apparently of natural causes.
''Sarah died peacefully in her sleep,'' said Hess, ''sitting in her chair in her room.''
Though she had been in declining health for several months, Hess said, her death came unexpectedly. Until recently, she had been in relatively good health, except for being almost totally deaf. She had been on oxygen briefly within the last month or so, but was not receiving it at the time of her death.
Several years ago, Hess said, Knauss attended Bible study sessions he taught at the home, a century-old landmark in Allentown's affluent West End.
''It took my breath away to see the oldest person on Earth sitting in the front row,'' he said. ''Sarah was an elegant lady and was worthy of all the adulation she received, we will all miss her very much.''
Knauss had been fine yesterday when visited by Sullivan, who lives in an assisted living complex next to Phoebe Home.
''Everybody is very sad, Jacoby said. ''But our mood right now is one of acceptance.''
The Guinness Book of Records: 1999 declared Knauss the oldest person in the world April 16, 1998, on the death of 117-year-old MarieLouise Febronie Milleur of Canada. Based in England, Guinness could not be reached for comment.
Knauss, who had been the oldest woman in Pennsylvania and the United States, was elevated to world status based on research by Allentown genealogist Edith Rodgers Moyer.
The 12th Census of the United States, taken in 1900, lists Sarah Clark as a resident of South Bethlehem born in 1880. A marriage certificate from Cathedral Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem confirmed her age, listing her as 20 on Aug. 28, 1901, when she married Abraham Lincoln Knauss.
They were married 64 years when Knauss, a former Morning Call circulation manager and Lehigh County Recorder of Deeds, died at age 86 in 1965.
''Oh my goodness, that's me,'' Knauss said when shown the two page spread in Life Magazine earlier this year. ''It's so nice.''
Knauss celebrated her 119th birthday three months ago with a meal of crab patties with a butterscotch sundae and chocolate turtles for dessert.
John E. Brunner, a volunteer at Phoebe Home, said Knauss went to the hairdresser last Tuesday, as is her weekly custom. Wearing a fashionable dress and her trademark smile, she had her hair done in a French twist, the classic style she preferred for decades.
''I wished her Happy New Year,'' said Brunner, who has taken her to the home's beauty shop almost every Tuesday for four years, ''and she wished me Happy New Year.''
Knauss looked exceptionally young for a 119-year-old, Brunner said. When introduced to others at the 450-resident home, he said, they marveled at her youthful appearance.
''I'm amazed she looked so young for her age,'' said Brunner, a retired shipping clerk who guards his age. ''She made me feel like a teen-ager.''
Marjorie Dent, who lives next door to Kathy Jacoby, recalled inviting Knauss to tea when she was in her 90s. Dent's mother, Mildred Wieder, lived with her at the time.
To her surprise, she found they went to the same elementary school in Bethlehem.
''She came all dressed up, beautifully coiffed,'' she recalled. ''I thought she was quite terrific.''
Longevity is apparently a Dent trait also. Dent's aunt, Mildred Dent of Ithaca, N.Y., is 108 years old and the oldest living member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Knauss's family attributes her longevity to her calm demeanor and acceptance of life as it comes. Rarely, family members said, did she get angry.
''She was a jovial, lovable person to be around,'' said Bob Butz, 75, her grandson. ''She was a good sport.''
Though she witnessed 20th century developments ranging from the advent of the automobile to manned space travel, Knauss remained faithful to 19th century values of self-sufficiency and family loyalty.
She was a member of Church of the Mediator, Allentown.
She never held a full-time job, but was an excellent seamstress who made hand-sewn quilts, crocheted table cloths and made her own clothes. She made her wedding dress, a striking gown of French linen, when she was a teen-ager. She sewed much her daughter's wardrobe until she was 100 years old.
Knauss' quilts, made from old dresses cut into patch-sized squares, and other items survive in family treasure chests. She made her last quilt, a Dresden, when she was 107 years old.
''She had the wonderful quality of being able to do fine stitching,'' said Margaret Butz Dennis, her great-granddaughter.
Dennis marvels at the things her great-grandmother has seen in her lifetime -- 43,530 days.
''To be able to see the things she saw,'' said Dennis, a nurse at Lehigh Valley Hospital, ''would be incredible.''
Knauss was born in a town named Hollywood, a mining patch near Hazleton, Luzerne County, when the legendary Molly Maguires inspired turmoil in the mines. Her father, Walter Clark, was a mining engineer and later became superintendent of the New Jersey Zinc Co. mine in Center Valley, south of Bethlehem.
Knauss is older than the Brooklyn Bridge. She was 13 when Henry Ford built his first car, and 32 when the Titanic sank. She was alive when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and was 88 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
She was alive at Franklin D. Roosevelt's birth, and death. And, she was a great-grandmother when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
A known chocoholic, she had a daily dose of chocolate right up until her death.
''The staff loved Sarah as if she was a member of their own families,'' Phoebe spokeswoman Marcella Moyer Schick said. ''It will be a long time adjusting to her passing.''
Surviving with her daughter, are a grandson, three great-granddaughters, five great-great-grandchildren and a great-great-greatgrandson.
Memorial services will be 11 a.m. Tuesday in Moyer Hall of the Phoebe Home. There will be no calling hours.
Bachman, Kulik & Reinsmith Funeral Home, Allentown, is in charge of arrangements.
Contributions may be made in her name to the Sarah Clark Knauss Memorial Fund, c/o the Phoebe Home.
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