They lived amid thickets of mosquitoes, adhered to the most spartan of lifestyles, endured the deadly storm of 1932 and witnessed World Wars I and II. The Cayman Islands’ most senior of senior citizens watched as our country evolved from the days of donkey carts, sea canoes and homemade whompers to cars, cruise ships, airplanes, electricity and the internet.
They have experienced the heartaches and jubilations that attend and define a long, long life, but Cayman’s group of centenarians still have much to share with society.
What follows is a collection of profiles of the oldest living people in Cayman, replete with bits of wisdom, laughter and stories of hardship, humor and humanity.
There is no single identifiable factor that is common to all of Cayman’s residents that have lived to mark their 100th birthday – there is no “secret ingredient” to achieving such a lengthy lifespan. However, distilled to its essence, the key to making the most out of the years you have on Earth, according to Cayman’s centenarians, is this: Work hard, praise God, help others … and don’t worry.
Cayman is fortunate to have several residents who have lived for 100 years and more. Cayman Compass reporter Jewel Levy has compiled profiles of many of Cayman’s centenarians through meetings and interviews with them and their loved ones, as they celebrated birthdays over the years.
Here, some share the secrets to their long lives and others look back at what a century of change has wrought.
At the age of 103, Wellesley Augustus Howell believes the secret to a long life is laughing and smiling – two actions that were on full display during his birthday party at the George Town Town Hall on Jan. 7, as he taught some of his friends about putting on a domino “six-love” for the game’s ultimate bragging rights.
Mr. Howell, who still works six days a week in his Shedden Road shoe repair shop, said, “Avoid the stresses, smile, and that smile will bring laughter and you will feel good.”
The Savannah resident said he has three wishes: A long life, a nice companion, and sincerity in life.
“If I find the right companion, I will try my best to do what is right,” he said.
He wants to be remembered for his smile.
“Something is always good that leads me to smile. Think of good and you will have me as a friend,” he said.
“The secret of my long life is left in the hands of God. My performance was grand, and I made my name outstanding. I am pleased with my father who gave me the strength to do this.”
Mr. Howell’s friend Martin Bodden Jr. said he heard many a times that one should never change the old for the new, and that a “good working old thing is better than a young thing anytime.”
In that spirit, when confronted with a piece of troublesome footwear, Mr. Bodden visited Mr. Howell’s shoe shop early in the morning on Friday, Dec. 29, and – despite the time of day and year – the centenarian was upbeat, on the job and ready to keep his customers’ feet happy.
“Mr. Howell never missed a beat in the repair. He fixed my shoe with as much style and flair as when he plays his saxophone. I left his shop and went about my day in pure awe at the strength of this great man,” Mr. Bodden said.
In 1958, Mr. Howell first arrived in Cayman at the invitation of Caymanian band leader S.E. Nembhard, who wanted his services as a saxophone player. After staying on the island for six months, Mr. Howell went back to his native Jamaica to get married, but returned to rejoin Mr. Nembhard’s band. It was only later on that he took up the shoemaking business.
He had never been on a plane before coming to Cayman. “When I felt the movements of the plane, I didn’t know whether I was going to live or die. Whatever they gave me to eat, I ate it. I thought, If I die, I will die with a stomach full,” he said with a laugh.
It was a rainy day when he landed in Cayman, and he recalled battling hordes of mosquitoes.
“I passed through the mosquitoes by handling them with whatever they gave me to keep them off, but it was a huge fight,” he said.
Mr. Howell remembers touring George Town for the first time.
“The gentleman there to collect me said he would take me through the town. After a short trip, he said we were on the way home. I said: ‘Sir, when you carry me through the town?’ He said: ‘We just passed through it.’ I said: ‘Town? I haven’t seen any town.’ He replied: ‘Well, this is the town for the Cayman Islands.’”
His first music gig was a success. “They took me to Mr. and Mrs. Greenel, the owners of the hotel, they asked me to entertain them with music. The second song I played, Mr. Greenel said: ‘Don’t play anymore. Come to the office and I will give you the papers to start work.’”
Asked if he ever wanted to do something else in life, Mr. Howell said he is content with the trade God gave him and it makes him happy. He said he cannot recall all the vast number of shoes, bags and belts he worked on over the years.
Although he cannot do all the things he used to do, he’s still going strong at 103. “My performance on the shoes is not so great, as an old man – but I can still work on the shoes,” he said.
Ariel Christian says her longevity is in her genes.
The native Bodden Towner, who celebrated her 100th birthday on April 5, 2017, said she does not know if she will live as long as her mother Nettie Levy, who died at 105, but a good and hard life has made her happy.
“I feel very good, but I don’t think I will live as long as Mama. I just want to go to heaven when I die,” she said.
Known by family members as “Ma-Ariel” and close friends as “Bonga,” Ms. Christian grew up on Nettie Levy Close along with seven siblings and parents.
She married the late Vibert Christian and they had three children, Vernell, Corine and Desmond.
Ms. Christian worked at the Bodden Town Clinic for a number of years before she retired, and was known as the best seamstress in Bodden Town.
In her spare time, Ms. Christian would ride her bicycle and enjoyed many a party in her day.
She also was one of the favorite cooks in the family and around the town. During Christmastime, she would prepare Cayman-style beef with Scotch bonnet peppers, paired with sweet potatoes dug from the yard and breadfruit picked from her brother’s yard.
She delighted in preparing the Christmas beef. Ms. Christian would place the freshly bought meat into a pudding pan, wash it down with lime and vinegar, rub in her favorite seasonings – salt and pepper, and let it rest, before placing it in the iron pot over the caboose fire made from local branches.
It is no secret that her longevity was aided by her diet of organic foods – seafood, crab, coconut milk and “breadkind.”
Ms. Christian grew up in a time when farming meant adhering to a strict diet sourced from local ingredients grown around the home and cleared land, plus obtaining fresh seafood from returning fishermen.
Despite the starchy foods, Ms. Christian never put on much weight during that time period, perhaps because of the accompanying rigors of rural life.
“We ate anything. Maybe keeping active searching for food was the key to staying healthy,” she said.
Hebe McKenzie, fondly known as “Baba Hebe,” was born in Breakers on Sept. 26, 1917, to Anisette Webster.
When she marked her 100th birthday, she credited her long life to working hard, praising God and not worrying.
Ms. McKenzie was known in the community as the smartly dressed woman who made her way along the Breakers road every Sunday to attend church, which she continued to do until she was no longer physically able. Her favorite hymn is “What a Day That Will Be (When My Jesus I Shall See).”
At the age of 92, Ms. McKenzie’s condition began to decline due to Alzheimer’s disease.
At 94, she could still move around, but she slowly became confined to her bed.
Growing up, Ms. McKenzie attended a little schoolhouse in Bodden Town. Later on, she twisted rope for a living, a skill she learned from her mother.
She did not have any children of her own, but that did not stop her from raising others in the community.
At age 100, Marguerite Rankine remains as sharp as a tack. She claims her mental agility is all about working hard, taking care of older people and loving children.
The Snug Harbour resident said, “It’s one thing to live to 100, but it’s a remarkable feat when someone can still remember the things that happened in a century of living.”
Born Oct. 7, 1917 in East End, Ms. Rankine was one of three children to parents Eleanor Mazanell Watson and Joseph Franklyn Rankine.
Ms. Rankine grew up and went to school in George Town.
“I was the tomboy,” she said. “I could bat and throw the ball, play marbles and climb like a cat; I still like to climb. You see that little mango tree out there in the corner of the yard? I loved to climb that just for fun.”
Ms. Rankine thinks being friends with everyone and leaving her health in the hands of the Lord is her secret of longevity and good health.
She advises young people, “Watch the company you keep – because if you don’t, it might be someone to drag you down instead of dragging you up.
“You want to stay young? Work hard, keep stress in hand and don’t let things get to you.”
She said life is what you make of it: “I will tell you, life is all about what you see. Life is good, but life is how you make it.”
Her morning starts with prayer and a good cup of coffee.
“I don’t like too much food, maybe a slice of toast. I like everything about dinner – the gravy, fish head, ‘breadkind’ and things like that. I love all seafood,” she said.
In Ms. Rankine’s opinion, the best invention to come to Cayman during her lifetime was the automobile. Her favorite thing about driving – a practice she did not give up until she was in her late 80s – was picking up people on her way into work because she hated to see them walking.
Ms. Rankine never smoked or drank alcohol.
“That was never my line. I can live without that” she said.
She began her professional career as a seamstress, but she worked for many years as a practical nurse at the George Town Hospital. She was also on the church missionary board.
“It’s hard to say when I stopped working because I don’t think I ever stopped,” she said. “There’s always something to do.”
The 100-year-old does not experience much pain.
“I tell people sometimes my old legs are not much good these days, but I couldn’t do without them. One leg pains me more than the other but not enough that I have to go lie down and hold it up … it just makes me know I can still feel,” she said.
This spirited, fun-loving centenarian has even stumped the doctors at Health City Cayman Islands – she was told she is in good health and needs no medication.
There are many things Ms. Rankine would like to do if she were younger, but one takes precedence over all the others.
“I would love to open a private school for children who don’t get on good in school, free of charge,” she said.
Sleeping at night, most times, is no problem for Ms. Rankine. Her favorite book is the Bible and she reads it until late.
“In the Bible, I can read about things that happened before my time and then compare it with things that are happening now. It’s like a lesson for me, to think of how life is in Cayman today and how it used to be, say 20 years ago. It seems like two different worlds,” she said.
Recalling her childhood, Ms. Rankine said she went to Sunday school but did not like staying for the adult church.
“The pastor preached too loud and took too long to let out,” she said with a laugh.
Sometimes her mother would take the belt and run her back.
“I could never tell anyone what they were preaching about because I would always get some book to read and never pay attention,” she said.
She said taking care of old people is the best thing she has learned through life. “I used to love it, and still do,” she said.
“To make you feel like you are living, try helping those that need help,” she said. “You will find a lot of people – old people especially, sometimes you will find young ones – that need help. Helping them is helping yourself because something on the inside makes you feel good when you help people less fortunate.”
Bodden Town resident Rena Alexander is set to celebrate her 101st birthday on Feb. 1.
Although she is confined to her bed, that does not prevent Ms. Alexander from wanting to get out in the sunshine and crack a smile with those who pass by.
Born in Sandy Bay, Nicaragua, to parents Alvert and Amanda Solomon, Ms. Alexander was the eldest of seven children. The long-retired seamstress and housekeeper grew up on Manse Road in Bodden Town but now lives at the top of Northward Road with her daughter Hazeldeen, age 79.
On her 100th birthday last year, Ms. Alexander was all smiles when she was presented with a new wheelchair so she could get outside to enjoy the fresh air and roar of passing cars.
“I had to get out of the house today,” she told her niece and caregiver, Sheila Minzett-Henry, when they first took her outdoors.
“I look good because I am in the sun,” Ms. Alexander declared with her endearing, witty and pleasant personality.
Stella Louise Welcome, East End’s oldest resident at age 102, warns against doing anything that is wrong or bad.
“Do all the good you can for as long as you can. Live good, take care of yourself, take care of your parents and do all you can for people. Love the Lord,” said the smiling Ms. Welcome.
When she was born on Oct. 30, 1915 as Stella Wood, Cayman’s police force consisted of a sergeant and 10 district constables; every house had a mosquito smoke pan; and there was no electricity.
Ms. Welcome only wishes she was younger so she could do more good for people and the church. At her 100th birthday celebration in 2015, Ms. Welcome received national recognition for her humanitarian work of delivering meals on foot to people in need throughout Grand Cayman.
“I got a lot to be thankful for and plenty to think about,” she said, speaking from her home and sharing her recollections about her life with the Cayman Compass.
At 102, Ms. Welcome can still recall her mother Genatta, who lived to the age of 103, asking her Aunt Valentine to take her outside to see the lights when electricity came to East End in 1971.
It made such an impression that her mother told the aunt when she got to heaven she was going to tell her friends and family how much smarter she was than them because she had lived to see electricity come to East End.
Seeing electric lights and telephone service come to East End was important for Ms. Welcome as well.
“Cars … they’re so thick now you can’t even count them anymore,” she said, adding, “I never had a car but I had a bicycle.”
Her doctor tells her today that her heart is healthy, there is no “salt” in her body, and overall she is in good health, she said.
In her younger days, Ms. Welcome went to dances but never stayed past midnight.
“I drank one beer in my life and that must have drunk me, too … I slept most of the day,” she said with a laugh.
She never smoked: “Those things were nothing for me to have, the smoking and drinking, no sah! That wasn’t made for me.”
She said there is nothing special that she loves to eat. She eats the things that grow on the land and things from the sea such as conch, whelk, lobster, turtle, fish and crab.
“When the fishermen came in with the Coxen grouper fish, we would salt it and hang it out to dry to make a good pot of rundown stew dinner cooked with coconut milk,” she said.
“I lived a good life,” she said.
Except perhaps for the day after that single beer, she recalls not being much of a sleeper.
“When I sleep in the day, I don’t sleep much at night,” she said.
She enjoyed visiting the sick and taking care of old people. Ms. Welcome loves to recite biblical psalms and the Lord’s Prayer. Her favorite worship song is, “Jesus Loves Me This I Know.”
Her advice for young people is try to be good: “Don’t do anything that is wrong and bad. Do all the good you can and as long as you can. That’s always a good motto to have.”
Elizabeth Hurlston, the daughter of Hugh Hutchings, the former commissioner of the Cayman Islands, has called Cayman home for more than 60 years. Ms. Hurlston, who is 103 years old, was born on Grand Turk Aug. 31, 1914, and spent much of her youth traveling around the Caribbean and United Kingdom.
Ms. Hurlston trained to be a nurse in Bermuda and Canada before eventually taking a job at a hospital in Jamaica, and she made frequent humanitarian trips to Haiti. Ms. Hurlston settled with her husband and family in Grand Cayman in 1954, and she began teaching Sunday school at Elmslie Church, according to information shared by Ms. Hurlston, her daughter Mary Bowerman and son-in-law Mike Bowerman last August.
She operated an import shop, Caymandicrafts, which was once located at Eden Rock, and was named a Member of the British Empire for her community service by Queen Elizabeth II in 2001. Earlier, she had been awarded the Queen’s Badge and Certificate of Honor for her contributions to Cayman life.
Ms. Hurlston made 15 mission trips to Haiti and the Dominican Republic with her church between 1988 and 1994, and she currently resides in South Sound.
Clara Estel Bush
West Bay’s Clara Estel Bush, now a resident of the Pines Retirement Home, was born Aug. 11, 1915.
The 102-year-old is cousin to William Bush, grandfather of Speaker of the House McKeeva Bush. Her family includes father John Bush, sister Elizabeth, and brothers David and Vibert.
McKeeva Bush described Ms. Bush as a devout Christian who was a member of the West Bay Pilgrim Holiness Church, now Wesleyan Church. He said she never married and devoted her life to taking care of her father. After he passed away, she worked at the church and for the various pastors at the mission home, before going to work for Rev. Ruth Bowman
Mr. Bush recalls her as being a “stern disciplinarian” who “took no prisoners and had no favorites.”
He said she strongly desired to own her own home, eventually building what he described as “one of the most beautiful, small, one-bedroom homes in West Bay at the end of Uncle Jimmy’s Lane.”
“She got all of the sand and gravel needed to build the house from the beach herself; taking it from the beach in a basket on her back. For years she did that until she had enough to build with,” he said.
Her niece Reba Manderson, 79, daughter of Ms. Bush’s sister Elizabeth, said her aunt, who grew up off Town Hall Road, West Bay, in a place known as “Old Bush,” was a very active lady in the community when she was young.
Her niece says her favorite words were, “I love the Lord.”
***Editor’s note: The Compass has attempted to identify and profile the centenarians currently living in the Cayman Islands. If you know of anyone that we missed, or if someone will soon celebrate their 100th birthday, please contact the Compass and we will be happy to share their story.***