Brian Hamilton: Celebrating a century, and then some | TheUnion.com

Brian Hamilton: Celebrating a century, and then some

Rudy Thompson hadn't planned on retiring in his early 60s, but when the San Leandro School District extended a golden handshake that promised him health insurance for the rest of his life, well, he said he just couldn't refuse.

"Little did they know," Rudy said with a wry smile, noting he accepted that handshake more than 40 years ago.

Over the weekend, Rudy rang in his 105th birthday in style, hanging out for a three-day stay at the Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley, where family and friends flocked to celebrate.

And celebrate we did, as Rudy offered me an IPA, a slice of rum cake, an autographed copy of his novel "Olaf," and more stories than one could expect to squeeze in a couple hours of conversation. His hospitality had me feeling like I was the birthday boy.

The back page of his book, "Olaf," offers a snapshot of what he's seen in his 105 years, since his birth on Oct. 28, 1912 in western Oregon as a first-generation American born to parents from Norway.

"He grew up in a rural environment and was involved at various times with lumber and timber occupations, as well as dairy farming, work in Oregon's salmon hatcheries, commercial fishing and the merchant marines. For a time he was a clerk in a hardware and sporting goods store. … After serving five years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, the G.I. Bill paid for his training as an industrial arts teacher at Oregon State University. He retired after 22 years of teaching in California in 1973."

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At the birthday party, a pair of bulletin boards full of photos took me along the path of Rudy's life, including his World War II service in the U.S. Navy — which saw his crash-boat crew recover the first Japanese "Zero" fighter that had crash-landed on Akutan in the Aleutian Islands. The recovery of the plane proved pivotal to defeating the Japanese in the air.

"That was before I moved back to the states," he said, noting that Alaska didn't become an actual state until 1959.

Rudy also revisited his training as a Navy diver, sharing a story that had him sitting some 90 feet below the surface of the San Francisco Bay, breathing air piped into a brass helmet while assembling equipment in complete darkness.

"It's pitch black down there and you're putting together nuts and bolts, and you're being timed," Rudy said. "You're mainly putting this thing together by feel … And you don't dare drop anything."

A few photos of his early rides, including a shot of his 1924 Chevy — his first car — and his 1929 Ford roadster and '37 Ford coupe, puts the span of his life into perspective. He's still behind the wheel today, either in his wife's 1994 Buick or his S10 pickup, driving himself wherever he needs to be, whether a meeting of the Sons of Norway or the Gem and Mineral Society, or a physical therapy appointment.

He still lives in Alta Sierra, where he and his wife, Sammie, moved in 1975 from the Hayward area. The couple were married 62 years, when Sammie died in 2007 at the age of 93.

"We'd both had grown up through the depression," he said. We knew about tough times, like in '29 when the (stock) market fell apart. We just worked together … It's hard to believe she's been gone for (10) years now."

Sammie was from the San Joaquin Valley and wasn't much of a fan of the weather along the Oregon Coast, where Rudy was raised. So when it came time to move, Grass Valley proved to be a better option than any notion about heading back to Rudy's home state.

"She'd say 'In Oregon, it's either raining, going to rain or it just got through raining," Rudy said.

Not only has he seen the Grass Valley community grow through the past four decades, he also remembers the tremendous growth of the Bay Area — which, in addition to his hunting and fishing trips in the Sierra, eventually led to them moving to the foothills.

He's kept himself busy through the years with his various club affiliations, as well as making jewelry, carving, painting and writing. He doesn't hunt anymore, as his hips and knees don't allow him to hike very long distances. And he stopped splitting his own firewood about a decade ago when his elbow started to give him trouble. (Although his son, Gary, says he's warned him more than once about staying off his roof, no matter how many leaves land there).

Nevertheless, those aches and pains didn't deter his desire to break the world record as the oldest skydiver. (He'd learned that some youngster had earned that title at the age of 102, and he was game to top it.) But the night before his leap, Rudy said he suffered a heart attack and couldn't make the jump.

"God didn't want you in that airplane," his granddaughter said.

But, other than that scare, as of late Rudy says he's felt great.

And, apparently, he's not alone.

According to a 2016 study, the number of Americans over the age of 100 grew by 44 percent from 50,281 in 2000 to 72,197 in 2014. According to the Associated Press, the oldest known living American, Delphine Gibson of Pennsylvania, celebrated her 114th birthday in August.

So what's the secret to such longevity? How does one get to 105?

"Good question," Rudy said. "It took me 105 years to get here, I can tell you that much.

"But the only answer I really can give you, to be serious, is that I was very careful to pick parents who had good genes … long-life genes."

Contact Editor Brian Hamilton at bhamilton@theunion.com or 530-477-4249.