With the grace of a movie star, it’s surprising that Shirley O’Connell, who turned 102 years old on Tuesday, only moved to California when she was 25 in 1947.
Born on Jan. 9, 1922, in Madison, Wisconsin, O’Connell grew up in Evansville, Wisconsin, a small town that had a population of 1,200.
O’Connell’s father was a linotype operator who later became a photographer to cope with the financial strains of the Great Depression. The residents of Atria Senior Living, such as June Tauch, can attest to the family tradition O’Connell has carried on until this day.
“I’ve only known her for seven months. She lives across the hall. The day I moved in, my daughter and I were busy. She knocked on the door and I went to the door. She said, ‘I want you to come see my apartment.’ My daughter and I walked over. We went in and she said, ‘June, I want you to know that I’m going to take your picture,’’’ Tauch said. “‘I always take newcomers’ pictures, but before I take the picture, I always do this,’ and she stuck her tongue out and wrinkled her nose, and my daughter and I just hollered.”
Tauch still has the photo hanging in her room. In addition, Tauch is in awe of how O’Connell doesn’t seem to age, and rather, has great energy and can walk without any assistance.
Another resident, John Loftus, elaborates on her photography as a way to help the friends in her life.
“Shirley continues to give by helping people create pictures so that they can send to their families — and it gets printed and passed around all the way. Nothing seems to be out of her way to help somebody,” Loftus said.
Loftus’ favorite memory of O’Connell after knowing her within this past year is the way she rotates her body to listen, given that she’s deaf in one ear.
O’Connell has a collage of photos taken with dozens of movie stars she’s met, including Betty White, Andy Williams and Alex Trebek. She has also been recognized by CBS and USC and other local and national news outlets for her efforts in geocaching.
O’Connell lived in the San Fernando Valley from 1947 to 2021, living in the same house in Arleta for 70 years and selling it in 2021 to move to Atria.
The mother of two sons and one daughter, she now has seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. At one point, she started a small, independent company selling mills, drill presses and other machinery.
Among O’Connell’s hardships include surviving her spouses throughout the years, in addition to surviving a train accident in Chicago in 1943 when she was pregnant with her first son, Larry. After the conductor suggested that she should move to the middle of the car, the man and woman who took her old seats were killed when the car went off of the rails.
O’Connell has lived for 102 years, and has the advice to prove it.
“You get out of life what your attitude is. You choose your attitude. You can make up your mind to be happy,” O’Connell said. “Just stay happy. Look for the right things.”
O’Connell’s favorite memory spans back over eight decades, when she was just 19 years old.
“My little brother looked at me and he smiled and said, ‘I love you like all the trees in the world.’ Now when I go down the highway and I see trees all over, it reminds me of my little brother,” O’Connell said.
As for how she feels about turning 102?
“It just happens. Every day to me is the same. I always look for the change in each day. There’s always something new, always something different. I never realized that I have so many friends in one place.”