ARKANSAS woman to celebrate 119th birthday next month

Thursday, July 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DEWITT, Ark. (AP) _ When Mary Thompson was 112, she switched nursing homes to be near a gentleman friend. Next month, the whiskey-sipping woman turns 119.

Thompson, the daughter of former slaves, would be recognized as the world's oldest living person if she only had a birth certificate. Social Security records show that she was born on Aug. 2, 1882, in Shelby, Miss.

``We'll present her roses,'' said Jennie Sheperd, social director of the Crestpark Nursing Home, where Thompson has lived since 1995. ``We'll get her a corsage, balloons and have a big cake made, the works.''

Nurse Jimmy Brown already gives Thompson money, which Thompson saves in her black leather purse to buy Juicy Fruit gum _ which wasn't invented until she was age 11 _ and pints of top-shelf Crown Royal whiskey.

``Usually I give her a dollar every day I work,'' Brown said. ``She looks forward to that. She saves it and someone goes out to get her the whiskey.''

The Guinness Book of World Records lists Maude Ferris, 114, of Michigan as the oldest woman in the world with documentation. A French woman, Jeanne Louise Calment, held the record before she died at 122 in 1997.

It is believed that Thompson, who was born Mary Johnson, lost her birth certificate in a fire. Historians in Arkansas and Mississippi could not find Thompson on census rolls from the late 1800s but acknowledge records for blacks in that period are sketchy.

According to Robert Landfair, the administrator of Thompson's estate, there's always been something about Mary: She moved to Arkansas by rafting across the Mississippi River; moved to Crestpark at 112 to be near a boyfriend; and would call Landfair, no matter the time of day or night, to switch channels on her television set.

In the 1940s and '50s, Thompson worked in Landfair's grandfather's kitchen, cooking and cleaning. After his grandfather died, Landfair kept a grocery store and looked after Thompson. Around that time, the woman's home was destroyed by fire.

``She just barely did get out and she was on the walker then,'' Landfair said. ``She lost everything she had, her birth certificate and all her papers.''

Landfair moved her to a nursing home.

Landfair recalls that Thompson was married twice, but her nurses say she talks about three husbands. She has no children.

She communicates poorly with strangers now but beams anytime she's asked a question. Asked last week how she was doing, she said, ``Thompson.''

Dressed in a bright pink blazer, flowered shirt and black bonnet, Thompson is wheeled around the 72-patient home in a hospital chair by a nurse. Thompson, who has vascular disease, has had both legs amputated.

``She'll sit at the nurses' station and watch TV all day,'' said nurse Dana Clawson. ``If you get in her way and she can't see the TV, she'll let you know.''

The office of Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., whose district includes DeWitt, said the Social Security Administration confirmed Thompson's birth date. ``That's the birth date on file with them. They probably saw some sort of paperwork along the way,'' Berry spokesman Warwick Sabin said.

Landfair said he doesn't expect Thompson to give up anytime soon.

``She just about outlived everybody I know,'' Landfair said. ``I've always told her she's going to live longer than I live and I still believe it.''