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Oldest American Finds Reason to Sing

AMES, Iowa - Even after 114 years, Neva Morris still has the energy to sing a good tune.

Morris, who has lived most of her life in Ames, is now America's oldest person and the second-oldest person in the world.

The previous oldest American, Mary Josephine Ray of New Hampshire, died Sunday at age 114.

Morris belongs to an elite group. Only 75 supercentenarians, those 110 years and older, are alive worldwide, according to the Gerontology Research Group.

Morris' son-in-law, Tom Wickersham, draped his arm around her shoulder Monday and brought his mouth close to her ear. He held her hand, with skin as soft and delicate as a baby's, and sang one of her favorites, "You Are My Sunshine."

Morris, who neither hears nor sees well, flickered her eyes open and joined in a weathered, raspy voice.

"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray," she sang.

Morris is also the oldest Iowan ever. The next most senior living Iowans are Dina Manfredini of Johnston, 112, and Meta Ilten of Cedar Rapids, 110, according to the Iowa Department on Aging.

Iowa has developed a reputation for longevity, with 941 people 100 or older, according to the 2000 census. Only South Dakota boasts more centenarians per capita.

"I'm not surprised Iowa is on the map with the oldest person in the United States," said Peter Martin, an Iowa State University professor who has studied centenarians for nearly 25 years. "We have a good quality of life, good medical services, good education. And we have a high mental health rate among older people."

Wickersham said Morris has long possessed an adventurous spirit.

She bought her last new car, a 1985 Mercury Grand Marquis with a rumbling V8 engine, at age 90, and continued driving for five years.

"The salesman took us out for a drive, and we got out on Highway 30, and she had the thing up to 60, and the salesman said, 'Well, she's sure not a slow one, is she?' " Wickersham said.

Born on Aug. 3, 1895, Morris spent much of her career tending a 224-acre farm in Ames with her husband, Edward, who died in the 1960s. The money she made raising chickens, hogs and dairy cattle helped put her four children through college at Iowa State. Morris also has eight grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and several great-great-grandchildren.

The oldest person in the world is Japan's Kama Chinen, who is fewer than 100 days older than Morris.

Wickersham said he marvels at the agility of his mother-in-law's mind. But living so long can be heart-wrenching, particularly when a parent outlives her children.

Walter Morris, who lives in Sioux City, Iowa, is Neva Morris' last living child. It's a topic Wickersham said he knows to avoid.

But Neva Morris perks up when Wickersham, who lives in the same retirement home, stops by for his daily visit, said Karen Greathouse, one of Morris' caretakers at Northcrest Community.

Until recently, Morris counted taking a dip in a whirlpool as one of her favorite activities.

"She absolutely loved to be in the whirlpool. She'd just kick and splash and just think it was the greatest thing. Then she'd want to stay in and not get out," Greathouse said.

"She's just a treat. She'll be 115 in August. Isn't that amazing?"

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