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Good genes and gumption: Poulsbo woman state's oldest resident

Emma Otis tells Girl Scouts about the history of Camp St. Albans, during a visit in 2006. She was involved in the camp when it was established in 1935.                             - Otis family collection
Emma Otis tells Girl Scouts about the history of Camp St. Albans, during a visit in 2006. She was involved in the camp when it was established in 1935.
— image credit: Otis family collection

POULSBO — If you like adventure, cinnamon rolls and pranks, you’ll wish you had hung out with Emma Otis.

As a child growing up in Gig Harbor, she regularly rowed across Tacoma Narrows to Point Defiance. “Sometimes, when the current was running through there, you had to pull like heck,” she said.

At age 12, she picked up newspapers on the dock and walked her rural Crescent Valley paper route in two hours.

While out on her round-bottom boat, if she knew some girls with her were “itchy” about being on the water, she’d make the boat sway to make them scream.

She went to nursing school at 16 and in her career delivered several babies. She remembers that some parents would ask her anxiously about whether their child was a boy or girl. Her response would be to hold the newborn up to them and say, with a smile, “Take a look.”

She’s climbed Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens and Mount Constance. She rode a camel in Egypt when she was in her 80s.

Accompanying a troop of Rainbow Girls to Alaska, she was “the life of the party” on the cruise ship, her granddaughter, Nancy Pugh of Port Orchard, said. “She got everybody playing games. She didn’t believe in girls sitting around doing nothing.”

In short, Otis is one cool character. She’s also turning 110 on Oct. 22. She’s the oldest Washingtonian and is possibly the 60th-oldest American (a Wikipedia list by the Gerontology Research Group lists Beulah Christie, born Aug. 25, 1901, at No. 59).

She’s also the oldest living member of the Girl Scouts of America.

She lives life today with the same gumption that drove her to climb mountains, visit every state in the union and travel to numerous countries overseas. She has her own apartment at Liberty Shores Harbor House, takes no medication, and doesn’t use a walker or cane. Kay Pursey, Liberty Shores marketing director, describes Otis as “good and feisty.” She participates in an exercise group and likes to socialize. She can’t hear well, and keeps a dry-erase board so visitors can write their questions.

Asked for the secret to her health and longevity, she responds with a laugh, “Because I’m a Swede.” (Her active life, healthy diet and genes certainly played a part. Her mother and an aunt lived to almost 90.)

Her 110th birthday will be celebrated with a party at Liberty Shores on Oct. 20, 4 p.m. There will be cake and live music. Otis will receive her 80-year pin from the Girl Scouts. She’s also received a signed letter from President Obama.

She was born Emma Gustava Erikson on Oct. 22, 1901 in Lawson, a coal mining town near Black Diamond. Her father, John Erikson (1862-1920), emigrated from Fjellbacka, Sweden to the U.S. in 1890 and was naturalized in Pennsylvania. He made his way to Washington state by 1894, where he worked as a coal miner and eventually became superintendent of mines at Cumberland.

Her mother, the former Emma Thoren (1875-1964), emigrated from Fjellbacka, Sweden in 1893 on the steamship “Cameo” bound for New Holland. She landed in Canada, went down the St. Lawrence River and entered the U.S. at Detroit. She came to America to keep house for her brother, Ole (Olaf), who was a coal miner. She met John Erikson, and they married in May 1894.

The day Emma Gustava Erikson was born, people were reading John Burroughs’ “Babes in the Woods,” a short story about bluebirds, in the latest Harper’s Magazine. Or they read W.M. Flinders’ account of the recent discovery of the royal tombs at Abydos, Egypt. Those articles seemed to herald the birth of the future birding advocate and Egyptian-camel rider.

It was a historic time. The nation was still reeling from the assassination of President McKinley Sept. 14. Topics of local conversation likely included the arson fire that destroyed much of Monroe on Sept. 18, and the incorporation of the city of Bremerton on Oct. 1. On the national front, President Theodore Roosevelt invited African American leader Booker T. Washington to the White House on Oct. 16; the South reacted angrily to the visit and racial violence increased in that region.

Growing up in Gig Harbor, Otis’s sense of adventure were spurred by the water and a panoramic view of the Cascade Mountains, Point Defiance and Mount Rainier. She attended Gig Harbor schools, was a fast runner at school, delivered newspapers from age 12 to 14, and went to nursing school at 16 at Tacoma General Hospital.

“Gig Harbor was a country place,” she said. “Many homes on my paper route were up on a hill and the customers would come out to the road to meet me.”

While a nurse at Tacoma General, she met firefighter Robin “Bob” Otis. He proposed to her at Wright’s Park, a six-minute walk from the hospital, and they married in 1921.

They raised their two daughters and son in the Tacoma area and were active in community life: the Methodist Church, Masonic Lodge, Eastern Star and Daughters of America. They traveled extensively, and Mrs. Otis collected commemorative plates from every state in the union. Later, she would send her granddaughters maps so they could track her travels.

Mrs. Otis became involved in Girl Scouts after her oldest daughter, Shirley, joined. It was a natural fit. She planned activities and accompanied the Scouts on excursions to Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens and Mount Constance. Her granddaughters, Nancy Pugh and Carol Vaughn, remember hikes with her being an educational experience: She would point out and explain details along the way — animals, fungi, plants and trees.

Otis said new Scouts only saw the mountain in front of them, but she wanted to open their eyes to all of the life that the mountain sustained. During the exploration, “I got the young people to really enjoy the mountain.” (She said the eruption of Mount St. Helens stands out as a significant historical event in her life.)

She helped establish Camp St. Albans in Belfair — more than 400 acres of woods surrounding peaceful Lake Devereaux. For up to 11 days, Girl Scouts enjoyed backpacking, campfires, cookouts, horseback riding, and water sports.

Otis, a lifelong bird lover, lobbied for the selection of the goldfinch as Washington’s state bird. Legislators made the selection in 1951.

Bob Otis died in 1961, and over the next three decades Mrs. Otis continued her involvement and travels with Girl Scouts and Rainbow Girls. She loved to bake; her granddaughters said her cinnamon rolls were famous.

Guests at her 100th birthday included babies she brought into the world as a nurse 80 years earlier. She lived on her own until she was 105, tending to her garden and lawn until she was 100. “If something needed to be done, she’d just do it,” Pugh said. (In her 80s or 90s, she whacked a skunk over the head with a shovel when it got under her house.)

At 105, she visited Camp St. Albans to talk to girls about her experiences at the camp. Today, there are five generations of Girl Scouts in her family.

“To me, her love for nature and camping and being outdoors are probably the most inspirational thing to me,” Pugh said. “She was always willing to help someone too. She’s a strong believer in good morals and doing the right thing.

“The memories are just … I could sit and here and talk for two hours just about the small things.”

 

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