My jaw nearly hit the floor when I learned that a woman who was teaching in Ceres in the 1930s - herself a 1928 graduate of Ceres High School - is still living at 103.
Claire Mall Price is not only busy living life at the Casa de Modesto retirement center but she defies time with a steel sharp mind, memories anchored to longer in the past than most have lived and a face that you'd swear was in her early 80s.
I could hear her coming down the hall as she was escorting his mother to an interview in the visitor's room at the rest home. Her voice was strong and determined as she spoke to son Jim Price of Reno, Nev. She rounded the corner, bracing herself on her walker at a faster pace that I wasn't expecting.
Up until the interview, the only thing I knew about Claire Price is that she is in a celebrated 1938 photo of Ceres Elementary School staff members, standing in the back row with the commanding figure of Principal Walter White. Yes, the namesake for Walter White Elementary School.
"Are you sure you're 103?" I ask her.
"Well that's what the calendar always says," she replied.
When I tell her that she looked more like 83, she thanks me.
Her eyes scan a print-out of the photo and she studies it. Everybody in the photo is gone bit her as she starts singling out people who were significant to her. She points to Geneva Klinke, who was a neighbor of hers out in the country. Louise Kuzensa, another teacher in the photo, was a lifelong friend after she ended her teaching days in Ceres.
Principal Walter White, she said, was "very pleasant." Claire knew him when she was attending school in Ceres and later was her boss.
"Of course he had been there since I had been in the seventh grade so I knew him for a long time and he was very good to me," she said.
To the kids, White was known as a strict disciplinarian and did things no principal could get away with today. According to Jim, who attended school in Ceres when his mother worked there, Mr. White was known as a "fearsome individual," walking around with a big wooden paddle protruding from the top of his back pocket. Teachers who sent misbehaving students to his office knew what they would be getting and left the door open so the other kids could hear the sharp smacks of swift punishment being administered to their buttocks, he said.
"I remember watching Walter White chase one boy across the back field," said Claire. "He was supposed to be in my room and he hadn't got to school; he was fooling around someplace. He wasn't afraid to spank them and he did and they knew it."
Another time she remembers how none of her male eighth-graders showed up to class. Mr. White instructed Claire to line them up if they showed up and "send them down to me."
"I did that and they went and he paddled them. Those were good kids. I taught them third grade and (later) they said, ‘You must be awfully smart. You can teach third grade and you can teach eighth grade.'"
Mae Hensley had been her eighth-grade teacher. At that time, Ceres only had two eighth grade classes. Despite her tough reputation, Mae was good to Claire, she reported.
"I guess I was a pretty good girl."
Claire was born on Oct. 30, 1912 in Santa Ana to Oscar Mall and Fannie Hackett who were both raised on Hackett Road in Ceres. Oscar Mall was of German descent and a carpenter. Her mother was a member of the Hackett family who settled west of Ceres on Hackett Road. When she was about a year old the family returned to Ceres. There were three girls and three boys in the family: Claire, Woodrow "Woody" Mall, Lola Mall Oberkamper, Oscar Mall Jr., Richard Mall and the youngest, Olive Mall Parker.
An antique photo of the Hackett family, including her grandparents, is shown to her and she remembers every one of them. The Hacketts came to Ceres in 1902 and ran a dairy west of Ceres. Her grandfather was William J. Hackett.
She remembers Ceres had dirt roads and the place to shop was the George Wood Store in downtown Ceres. She points out in an old photo of the store that the grocery side was on the right and the mercantile goods on the left.
"The store keeper, after my mother would get her groceries and come out, he'd come out and give each of us all-day sucker because our mother made us stay in the car."
Her first visits to the store were made in a horse-drawn buggy. She remembers once when the horse was spooked by an automobile.
"I remember when we got to the highway and a car finally came along and the horse began to back and I fell out onto the ground and the horse's hoof just came right down by my face. I wasn't old enough to go to school yet. I must have been four or five."
Her family went to the Christian Church and, because her mother stopped going for a while, Claire and siblings walked the three miles from Creamery Road, now Central Avenue.
"We were a poor family but as my mother said, we didn't know it."
Good neighbors were the Turner family. She recalls how Eldie Turner once ogled at a cake baked by her mother and named some of the Turner kids she knew: Eldie, Herbert, Grace and Alice. "Lena Belle was older and more sophisticated than we were."
In high school Clare was part of the glee club. She remembers that one classmate was Eleanor McKnight, daughter of town druggist and Mayor Claude McKnight.
Claire wanted to become a teacher as early as the fifth grade and after graduating from Ceres High School she attended Modesto Junior College and then San Jose Teacher's College (now San Jose State University). She recalls it not being very expensive to go to college and lived with an aunt and uncle for a while. Claire later shared an apartment with another female student.
Her first teaching job came in 1932 in rural Keyes at Fair Acres School (I had never heard of it). Mrs. Price said she was paid $800 a year to teach at the one-room school house four miles east of Keyes.
"They were using one salary for two people so that they could have two teachers and I was glad to have a job because lots of teachers they graduated and couldn't get a job because there weren't any jobs available. So I was lucky."
Claire taught the first four grades.
Ceres Elementary needed a teacher in the 1930s. I asked when she started teaching third grade in Ceres but she was unable to say exactly.
"For some reason my brain doesn't want to work this morning," she said.
Jim believes his mother was hired to teach in Ceres in 1937.
Claire made considerably more money in Ceres.
"Teachers were still low paid when I started teaching. It seems like I made $2,600 a year. Wages were low but people lived on it."
She first taught in Ceres two years, having to quit when she married James Wildish in 1939. In those days the rule was if you got married you couldn't teach any more.
"I guess they wanted to give the young teachers a job," said Claire. "If you were married they didn't think you needed one, I guess."
Talk about a violation of labor law today.
The birth of Jim in 1940 spoiled her plans to return to teaching. She eventually ended up substitute teaching for a short while but was hired to teach eighth grade, then seventh grade for four years. A move to Turlock in the 1940s caused her to teach in Turlock.
My questions about how long she taught in Turlock caused her to announce "You're taxing my brain."
She rarely opens up about the loss of her identical twin babies who died at childbirth but she shares that heartbreak with me and Jim confirms "that it's not something she mentions much."
Her marriage to Wildish - Jim's dad - ended in divorce when he was three. She remarried Clifford Price in 1946. They were married until he died.
She retired from teaching in 1966 after teaching fifth grade in the Sylvan School District under Principal Coleman Brown. Before she moved to Casa de Modesto Claire would bump into former students who remembered her.
"I've had a good life."
Claire shrugs her shoulders when asked the secret of her longevity but suspects that it could be in the genes. Her mother died short of 100. Her dad died in the early 80s.
"I live one day at a time, just ordinary living."
Experts say mental activity is essential to long life and Mrs. Price fits the bill.
"She's got a Nook now and she reads some on her Nook," offered Jim. "She tries to keep her brain active so lately she's been doing Sudoku. I think she keeps reasonably mentally active. Her hearing's not too good so when she watches TV she reads closed caption."
When we reach the end of our interview, an awkward question is asked of me. "Now what are you doing with this?" she asks. I explain I am writing a feature on her. "On me?" she asks in disbelief. "What are you going to do with it?" Print it in the Ceres Courier I explain. She shakes her head, telling me there's nobody left in Ceres who will remember her.
"I want to see it before it goes in the paper," she demands.
Jim gets it that media folks just don't do that and says, "Too late now, Mom" and laughs.
Being her only child, Jim feels an obligation to visit his mom every two weeks. He doesn't want any regrets when she passes. He drives down from Reno, stays at a local motel and spends daytime hours with her at her place.
"Just like somebody with Alzheimer's, the long-term memory tends to be there. The short term has been going rapidly just the last few months. She still remembers people and everything but she may not remember what she said a few minutes ago. Still for 103, it's still quite sharp.
"We play two-handed pinochle and I play as hard as I can and it's still pretty much a standoff. Then there are other times when she forgets how the game goes and needs some gentle reminders and it'll be there again."