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Renee Park/MEDILL

Chicago native Edwin Weig, 101, talked about the secret to his long life on Wednesday and peacefully passed away on Friday. A retired vice president of Bankers Life and Casualty, he read the newspaper to keep up with world events until his last day.

A century plus: Secrets to a long life

by Renee Park
Nov 01, 2009


Renee Park/MEDILL

Madeline Vanhanseleare, 104, said she ate lots of brussel sprouts and other vegetables in her younger years, part of her secret to staying healthy. She intends to live to see the Cubs win another World Series, she said.  

She witnessed World War I and World War II, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. She survived the Great Depression and supported the Civil Rights movement.

She remembered a time a century ago when most people had never used a telephone or an automobile, when few people had seen an airplane and no one could even imagine a human being stepping foot on the moon. 

"You'd need to write a book," said Madeline Vanhanseleare, age 104, who observed and experienced these changes.

She gestured with her hands, laughing in amused dismay and said it would be impossible to compress her life, which includes many years working for a telephone company on Dearborn and Franklin streets, into one short article. She recalled free admission on ladies' days at Wrigley Field where she could go to catch a game before heading to her night shift at work.

He husband worked a day shift as a postal worker so they could alternate care of their two young children.

"I have all the insights right here," she said, tapping her temple. 

This story was originally intended to be a profile about centenarians like Vanhanseleare and the venerable Edwin H. Weig, a 101-year-old former Chicago businessman and alumnus of Northwestern University. Weig's interview took place Wednesday morning at Norwood Crossing, an assisted living and nursing home facility located on Chicago's North Side. 

But his condition deteriorated later last week and he was transferred to Resurrection Medical Center, where he died just before dawn on October 30th, having lived for more than 36,500 dawns.

During Weig's last day on earth, his path crossed Vanhanseleare's, who was living in another building of the Resurrection Health Care network, where I interviewed her Thursday. She said firmly that she wouldn't leave this world until the Cubs win the World Series again.

The Cubs won the series in 1908, the year Weig was born. When Weig attended Northwestern University, from the mid to late 1920s, Norris University Center did not yet exist. Even Deering Library, erected in 1933, had yet to be built.

But squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits roamed the tree-lined campus with the coeds, much like today, Weig recalled. He was a commuter student, and took a combination of streetcars and the el to the Evanston campus every day from his home on the North Side of Chicago. His favorite class was in Naval Science. He was also a member of the Delta Sigma Pi fraternity. 

"I was a fair student, had a generally good GPA," the 101-year-old said. He couldn't recall his major anymore and, in the hard times of the era, he had to start working before he could graduate.  

On Wednesday morning, Weig sat in a communal living room area at Norwood Crossing. He sat in his wheelchair with his hands clasped, his head bowed, speaking slowly but deliberately to each question posed. He breathed oxygen from the tank a nursing home aid wheeled into the room. He wore a gold watch, and was dressed in a pastel colored dress shirt and slacks. His shiny black shoes glowed.  

Weig's father was in the travel business, and worked for the White Pass and Yukon Railroad in Alaska during the Gold Rush. Weig remembered his childhood on the North Side of Chicago with fondness. 

"Lots of gifts, toys of all kinds," he said. Born on April 29, 1908, Weig was the youngest of four children. Weig's father, Harmon, was a Swedish immigrant who crossed the Atlantic with his family as a young boy. Weig's American-born mother, Eda, didn't understand Swedish, so the family spoke mostly English at home.  

In 1932, Weig married Evelyne Rybin, who he met at a party, and worked a combination of jobs. He worked for a travel agency and moved with his young wife to New York, eventually moving back to Chicago for a while, where their only son Don was born. During his time in New York, he coordinated and led overseas trips to Ireland, France, and other places.

"He used to brag about kissing the Blarney Stone [in Ireland]," said Don. "You have to get in a really weird position to kiss the Blarney Stone but he did it," says the younger Weig, who owns the Sharon Telephone Company in Sharon, Wis. 

During the 1930s and the height of the Great Depression, Weig went door-to-door in Indiana, selling French's mustard to support his family. The Weigs weren't particularly fond of mustard, recalled Don. But the income from the mustard selling business generated enough funds to keep their family afloat. 

"We didn't see him during the week but he was home every weekend," said Don. Weig was a real family man who understood the importance of family values, his son said. 

Weig also dabbled in a wholesale grocery company with a few colleagues in Indiana. A job offer back in Chicago in the early 1950s returned him to his home turf. Weig eventually used the skills he had acquired as a purveyor of mustard, and rose quickly to the rank of vice president at the Chicago's branch of Bankers Life and Casualty, an insurance company that specializes in seniors. He held the position for many years until his retirement in the 1970s. 

After Evelyne died, Weig still remained in his large, comfortable home in Lincolnwood, remaining fairly independent until his recent admittance into Norwood Crossing for physical therapy.

His niece, Edith Vehe, praised her late uncle's level of cognition and independence was for a man of his age. 

"He used a computer every single day at home to check how his stocks were doing," she said. He would also make weekly trips to the store in his electric wheelchair, though Vehe told him time and time again that she or her sister would gladly do his shopping for him. 

"He insisted on being independent," Vehe said. 

Weig received weekly meals through the Norwood Seniors Network's Home Delivered Meal program. 

"He used to come to the door in his wheelchair and take the meals," said Stan Banash, the public relations director at Norwood Life Care Foundation. Banash also reminisced about how alert and healthy Weig appeared back then.
Independence remains an important factor for centenarians. Vanhanseleare's maintained a cheerful disposition throughout the interview, but she said it's hard to adjust to her recent entry into the nursing home at Resurrection Life Center. She used to live in the assisted living building at Resurrection. 

"I want to go home," she said. She said she feels lonely because, during meal times, many of the other residents, even those much younger than she is, don't talk much. A nurse's aid gently reminded her that not everyone possesses her level of mental acuity in old age. 

Weig asked for a cup of water and eagerly sipped through his straw at the conclusion of his interview. He also asked for his newspaper, which he carried on his lap. He liked to stay informed about his second century of human affairs. 

His achievement in remaining healthy for so long is a combination of good genes and luck, Weig said. Three of his siblings lived well into their 80s and one sister lived into her 90s. 

Services for him will be held at 12 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 4th at the Smith-Corcoran Funeral Home located at 6150 N. Cicero Ave. He will be buried at Ridgewood Cemetery. 

Weig is survived by his son, Don, his step-grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews.