Centenarians in the family

Mary Maxine Challender
Sometime in the 1920s. From left to right: my grandfather Willard Challender, my great-grandfather Alton, my great-aunt Maxine, and my great-grandmother Elizabeth.

Today marks the one-hundredth birthday of my great-aunt Maxine Smith of Newton, Kansas. My mother flew out yesterday to celebrate this occasion with her siblings. Maxine was one of the older relatives of mine who was very encouraging to my genealogical pursuits in my youth.

As some readers may know, I began doing genealogy in my preteens with some encouragement from my father and his sister. I was soon encouraged to contact older relatives (i.e. relatives of my grandparents’ generation). With the exception of my maternal grandmother (who was very helpful with our shared family history), my other three grandparents had already been dead for many years. I had a living sibling of my other three grandparents, and Maxine was the younger sister of my mother’s father. Over the years we discussed genealogy by letter, in person, and over the phone (never by e-mail, as she still uses a typewriter).

Mary Maxine Challender (always known as Maxine) was born in Halstead, Harvey County, Kansas on 17 December 1915, the second child of Alton Russell and Elizabeth Belle (Severance) Challender. At five years old her family moved to a farm in nearby Sedgwick, Kansas. She graduated from Sedgwick High School and attended Kansas State College in Manhattan for two years, then transferred to Salt City Business College in Hutchinson.

Maxine went on to work as a secretary in the Agricultural Stabilization Conservation Office, and later changed jobs to work in a flower shop. She married her husband Russell Vern Smith (known as Vern) during World War II at Hutchinson 27 June 1943. Maxine later returned to secretarial work, and Vern had a job in Newton with the Kansas Gas and Electric Company. They stayed in Newton after retiring. Vern died in 2002, and years later Maxine moved to Wichita to be near two of her nieces; she has since returned to Newton.

Elizabeth LarnedIn 1987, Marian Waters Challender, the wife of Maxine’s cousin Ralph, prepared a wonderful family genealogy called Josiah Challender and His Descendants, which focused on Maxine’s grandfather Josiah, who was born in New Jersey, served in the Civil War, and later made his way to Kansas. Maxine provided the bulk of the book’s information about the Kansas Challenders. Marian died in 1992, and her husband Ralph C. Challender died earlier this year; I now have many of Cousin Marian’s genealogical papers. With Ralph’s death, Maxine is the last living grandchild of Josiah Challender, who fought at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Childhood memories include my Aunt Maxine showing me Josiah’s discharge papers and many Challender family photographs. Indeed, Maxine is the last living relative of my grandparents’ generation.

The last centenarian in my family was Hazel (Bleeker) (Child) Child (1888–1990), who was my paternal grandfather’s step-mother.[1] Of my direct ancestors, the last centenarian was my great-great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth (Eaton) Larned (1790–1890) of Dudley, Massachusetts. When you find ancestors that lived this long, especially from the nineteenth century onward, I suggest checking newspapers for stories about them. In Elizabeth’s case, her advanced age was reported in newspapers in New York (see clipping at right), Pennsylvania, and Indiana a few months before she turned 100.

ETA: Mary Maxine (Challender) Smith died at Newton 10 January 2016, 24 days after her hundredth birthday.


[1] She was first married to a Philadelphia man named Frederic Child, and after he died began dating a widower, my great-grandfather William Child, of no relationship whatsoever to Frederic. Still, before they married, hotel keepers found it odd that Mr. Child and Mrs. Child checked into different rooms.

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

10 thoughts on “Centenarians in the family

  1. What a fascinating post! To think that two generations takes your Aunt Maxine’s family back to the Rev. War (if I read this correctly) is just mind-boggling. And both Maxine and Mrs. Larned such “interesting ladies” to boot.

    My mother, too, was born in 1915, and is also an “interesting lady.” I took her an amaryllis plant last Saturday, for the pure pleasure of watching her eyes light up. This has been a tradition for at least 15 years, because she loves watching things grow. Her vision has begun to fail only recently, but she can still read poetry in fairly large print, and has lots of it in her head that she can recite, mostly accurately. Her mother “only” lived to be 94, as did one sister. Her father was 97, a Norwegian immigrant, whose eyes were sharp as his mind. He left school at 12, when the family came to America, as they needed the money he could earn. But in old age, he was still learning. He had a special interest in St. Paul–the Apostle, not the Minnesota city. His pastor would bring stacks of books, which Grandpa read. When the pastor returned, they discussed the current pile, and traded stacks. Grandpa always wondered why “that nice young man” was interested in coming to visit him!

    My father was caught by cancer by 84, but had a centenarian on his side too. One of his aunts was still beating my parents at Scrabble a month before her death just shy of 102. Her father, my great grandfather, lived to be 92.

  2. Thank you, Chris, for your family history. I am currently living with my mother, Maxine Virginia Jeffrey, Powell, Clark. She is currently 102 and is back in the same town where she began, June 1913. Our family shows their love by traveling to visit her often. We are blessed by her well-lived life.

  3. My centenarian was my 3rd great grandfather, Luther Catlin, born in CT in 1784, removed to Susquehanna county PA around 1810, and died there in 1885. I have several newspaper clippings regarding him, my favorite being from Nov 1784, which told the story of how he had voted in every presidential election since Madison, always for the winning candidate. (However in 1784, his vote wasn’t for the winning candidate.) The town of Montrose celebrated his voting in 1784 by sending a wagon for him, a son, a grandson, and great grandson, and after they had each voted, a reception was held in town hall in his honor. A photograph was taken of the foursome on this occasion and I only recently was given an original photo found with some family photos (I had seen the photo at the Susquehanna Historical Society a number of years ago and the scan was not too good at that time). Luther Catlin died in February of the following year at the age of 100 years, 3 months, and 13 days.

  4. I, too started investigating my ancestry at an early age and therefore benefited by being able to speak to a number of elderly relatives who had valuable information.

    My g-g-grandmother Nancy J. (Nash) Moody lived to be to be 107 years 4 months and 20 days. She was Born in Nobleboro, Maine on May 31, 1848 and died in the same town on October 10, 1955. I was told that when a teen (or a young woman) she had a partial lung collapse. She had four children. The first two died in 1869 with a few days of each other at the ages of 1 1/2 yrs and 6 mos. Her later two children lived long lives, one of who outlived her by a few years.

    Interestingly enough, she had an older sister, Amanda (Nash) Kaler who lived to be 101 years and 14 days. This sister came to live in the Moody household on January 14,1929.

    Although I didn’t have access to them, my grandmother who cared for them had a fantastic memory and remembered many, many things that she heard them say about family. She passed that info on to me.

  5. My 5th great grandmother made it to 101 (Rebecca (perhaps Brown) 1704 – 1805). She married William McBrayer, who was also long of life (1696 – 1795).

  6. I believe a person was mis-identified as a “great-aunt” when she sure looks more like a sister to the blog writer’s grandfather, which would make her a grandaunt (being a sister to a grandparent).

    1. Hi Peg – Just seeing your comment now! Nice to “see” you here. I met Hazel a few times in Oak Bluffs along with her daughter Mary. I’d be happy to share the information I have on Hazel and Fred’s ancestors. My e-mail is cchild [AT] nehgs.org
      Regards, Chris

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