Of all the changes in her life, it is the everyday conveniences she sees as the greatest. As Gail Rittgers began her second century of living, she reflected on the historic events she has witnessed, as friends and family gathered around her to celebrate her 100th birthday.
She was born Evelyn Gail Courtney on July 30, 1902, in a small town in Iowa and grew up in a home above her parents’ grocery store in Cedar Rapids.
She graduated from high school at 16 and attended Coe College in Cedar Rapids, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
“I didn’t really want a career,” she said. “I wanted to get married.”
And, six months after graduation from Coe, she did just that. On Dec. 19, 1925, she married Forest Rittgers. “We met our freshman year and got engaged after just a few dates,” she said. “Of course we had to wait to get married until we both graduated.”
The early years of their marriage were spent in Centerville, Iowa, where Forest was a high-school football coach. Then he took a position at Coe College as the basketball and track coach.
But Pearl Harbor changed their lives forever.
“My husband was a reserve officer, and I remember they pulled him off the football field when the emergency came,” Rittgers said. “I also remember Pearl Harbor because it was my youngest son’s fourth birthday. He had invited so many people to his party that we had to move the furniture out onto the porch. The children came and got down on the floor and enjoyed the presents while the adults talked about what happened. That was the last time our two sons saw their father out of uniform for the next seven years.”
The war years were difficult, but Forest spent his time in the states, not overseas. After the War, he was sent to Japan as part of the occupation force. Gail and the two boys went with him to Kyoto, where they saw many interesting sights and experienced Japanese culture. After Japan, the family spent time in Hong Kong and in Syracuse, N.Y.
“I think Syracuse is the worst place in the world,” she said. “Absolutely the worst place in the world.”
IN 1957, the family moved to Alexandria. “My husband left the Army because of his age, and we decided to come here,” Rittgers said. “By that time, we had a lot of friends here and really liked the area. It was close to Washington but not Washington, and there was a lot to do. Besides, the house my sons grew up in Iowa was 420 and we saw this house for sale and it was 420.”
It was 420 N. Washington St., that is, the house she has owned and occupied since 1957. “I remember walking into the hall and seeing that the man who was painting the house was painting the hall the same color as my kitchen in Iowa,” Rittgers said. “I asked him what color he was going to paint the kitchen, and he said he thought maybe green but asked me what color I wanted. I told him that I liked the color he was painting the hall. When we came back the next day, the kitchen was the same color as the hall, a sort of pink. I have lived here ever since.”
While she considers Syracuse to be the worst place she ever lived, Rittgers says that Alexandria is the best. “It’s just a wonderful city,” she said. “And that’s mostly because of the people. They are just wonderful.”
She was delighted that Mayor Kerry J. Donley came to her birthday celebration at Grace Episcopal Church on Sept. 15. “I was so surprised,” she said. “He’s such a nice man and so handsome. I couldn’t believe that he came for my birthday.”
FOR HIS PART, the celebration was a first for Donley. “I have presented a lot of proclamations over the years, but never one in recognition of a hundredth birthday,” he said. “It was a very special experience for me to be able to spend time with Gail and congratulate her on her birthday. She has been a vital part of our community and certainly an important part of Grace Episcopal Church for many years. I hope we get to celebrate many more birthdays with her.”
Rittgers says that the most important changes she has experienced are in the area of household conveniences. “When I was young, we didn’t have indoor plumbing, and our lamps were kerosene,” she said. “Life is just much easier today because of the conveniences.”
Most of Rittgers’ community work has been with the church. She has taught Sunday school, served on the vestry and done other jobs at Grace as she was needed. “Everyone at Grace has always been so good to me,” she said. “I’ve just tried to help out wherever I was needed.”
The Rev. Robert Malm is the rector at Grace. “Gail is a remarkable lady,” he said. “She has been a mainstay of our women’s Bible study group for years and is still involved. She taught Sunday school until she was 80 years old and is still teaching us many things.”
To what does Rittgers attribute her long life? “I just didn’t die,” she said. “I’ve had pretty good health and not a lot of energy. Maybe that’s it, maybe I just didn’t waste energy worrying myself with being too busy.”