When Letha Bower was born, bread cost less than a nickel a loaf. Milk was slightly more than a quarter per gallon. And stamps could be purchased for no more than 2 cents. To say that a lot has changed since 1902 would be an understatement — two world wars, the Cold War and the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf, to name a few calamities.
"When the boys came home that was just one of the happiest days," she said. "That war was just the worst. It was so terrible." World War I, that is.
Born Nov. 10, 1902 in Harding County, Ohio, Letha Bower will celebrate her 100th birthday on Sunday with a quiet dinner in Reston with her daughter and grandson. "It's just another day," said Bower. The former Letha White, was one of seven children — two girls and five boys — born to Ohio dairy farmers. But she never set foot in the barn. "Girls didn't do that," she said.
Stoic and reserved, Bower is amused at all the attention being paid to her these days. She scoffs at the notion of a party. "I'm too old," she said. "There's not much left for me to do but sit on my rocker and look out my window."
Just decades of memories, that's all. Her school days, in high school at Gustavous High School and college at Kent State University, were her favorite, she said. Bower went to Kent State to become a teacher, which she did for five years during and after graduation. "I enjoy reading a lot, so that was a good time for me," she said.
As fun as her school days were for Bower, nothing could match the memory of March 29, 1924 — her wedding day. Wade and Letha Bower were married for 54 years before he died in 1977. The key to a long healthy marriage is simple, she said, "Share your life with each other. That's it."
Bower said she misses the "olden days." The Ohio farm girl is not a big fan of so-called modern conveniences. "It's a lot harder to live today than back then because life was just simpler."
<b>BOWER SAID SHE</b> has neither had so much as a sip of liquor nor a puff of a cigarette. She said she has never broken the law, at least that she knows of. She credits her longevity to her family's strict Protestant work ethic. She said her parents led a simple life, and that has not changed over the years. "You did what your parents told you to do," she said. "There was no fooling around."
Once, she tried riding bicycle when she was about 15, but she fell over. "That's what you get for being a tom boy," her dad told her.
While she loves to go for drives, she hasn't driven herself since the late 1970s; she has never set foot on an airplane. "Why would I want to get my feet off the ground?" she asks. "I never have, never will."
Bower remembers her family's first car, a Model T. A few years later, she and her brother shared another "T" when they went off to college. She learned to drive when she was 21. "It floored me," she said. "Boy, we thought we were really flying. I wouldn't dare drive that thing today, you know."
<b>BORN DURING </b>Theodore Roosevelt's administration, Bower believes his cousin was the country's greatest modern president. "FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt] did the most for our country," the staunch Democrat said.
Though she still tries to convert her daughter's more conservative leanings, Bower said she has lost her zeal for politics and politicians. "I'm not interested anymore," she said. "I am almost done."
Today, instead of preaching politics to her daughter, Bower cooks and bakes for her. According to her family, she still cooks dinner nearly every night in the North Reston apartment she shares with her daughter. "Mostly meat and potatoes," said Cheryl Jones, her daughter. "Her famous vegetable soup is my favorite."
Once dinner is served, Bower and her daughter can usually be found in front of the television. "I never miss an episode of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy," she said.
"She gets more than me and she's faster," Parker, her grandson said. "She's great with words."
So good, in fact, that Bower can't get any of her family to play Scrabble with her. "They won't play with me," she said, laughing. "They are scared."
<b>"THE FIRST 100</b> years are the toughest," she said, recalling a joke her nephew told her recently. "It's all down hill from here."
How does Bower feel about nearing the century mark? "It's not half bad," she said. "But I can tell you I don't plan on living another 100."
Bower has 17 grandchildren, ranging in ages from 28 to 56, for that she is sure. After that, however, all bets are off. "I know I have great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren," she said, "but I have lost track of how many. Besides I have never even seen some of them."
"She raised my brother's children and she had a finger in raising a lot of other grandchildren," said her daughter and roommate, Jones. "She has done so much, but she is too humble to brag."
"She is the best grandmother anyone could have," her grandson Mike Parker said. "She's loving but very independent and strong-willed."
Her independence is the 99-year-old's trademark, her family said. Bower admits she has a "pretty good temper," but she said that long ago she learned an important lesson. "Just learn to control it — that's the secret," she said.
After nearly 100 years, Bower has only one suggestion to other future centenarians. "Live life as it is and don't try to change it," she said. "Keep looking ahead not behind. Just keep living every day out, day by day."