MIDDLEBURY — Wall Street pundits have been invoking the term “Great Depression” in conversations about the current state of the national and global economies.
Those pundits should talk to someone like Charlotte Forte, who turned 100 last month and actually lived through the greatest of financial meltdowns — as an adult — more than 70 years ago.
Charlotte was born on Oct. 22, 1909, the middle child to John and Ruby Gilmore of Bristol. Growing up in a farming community enhanced her knowledge of nutrition — something she cites as one of the keys to her longevity.
“I think mainly, it’s because of my information on health, and that was at an early age,” Charlotte said of her longevity. “People at that time didn’t know much about food.”
After graduating from Bristol High School in 1927, Charlotte pursued her interest in nutrition at the University of Vermont, where she earned a bachelor of science degree in home economics in 1931.
“I had a lot of information that people didn’t ordinarily know; I think I applied it in my life without even realizing it,” she said of the good dietary habits that have sustained her for a century. “It makes you aware of what’s in the food, and what it does for you.”
Charlotte was determined to share her knowledge with others, but it took her a while to find a job through which to do it. She graduated at the height of the Great Depression, and found herself — even more than today’s graduates — in competition for a small number of jobs. She decided to got to New York City where she believed her odds of finding employment would be better. Charlotte specifically hoped to catch on as a dietician in one of the Big Apple’s trendy restaurants.
No such luck.
“I thought with all the jobs down there, I might get one, but there were none for me,” she said with a good-natured chuckle. “(The few jobs) all went to New York City people.”
Charlotte recalled the period as a wrenching time.
“It’s something you want to forget,” she said of New York in the Depression. “It was awful down there. I walked the streets looking for a job down there; you saw these people begging for food and people didn’t have food. That was a down part of living in New York.”
Charlotte did nail down a job in the food field — initially as a waitress. Given the hard times, Forte understood she was lucky to be employed at all, so she waited tables for around three years until the economy started to turn around. When it did later in the 1930s, she landed a job as a dietician for high school cafeterias in Forest Hills, N.Y.
Indeed, Forte’s life was definitely getting on track. It was also during the 1930s — specifically June 26, 1933 — that Forte married her husband, Charles Forte, a private duty nurse. The couple would enjoy 50 great years together.
The Fortes worked hard at their respective jobs. By the time Charlotte Forte retired from the Forest Hills School District in 1972, she was supervising the hot lunch programs of 93 schools. She hired cafeteria workers, set their salaries, set the prices for the children’s meals and oversaw the nutritional content of the food that was consumed by thousands of students.
“It was a nice experience for me,” Forte said.
She and Charles retired back to Bristol in 1972, where they lived on Mountain Street. Charles died in 1983, but Charlotte continued to live independently in her home, with some help from relatives, friends and neighbors. Eventually, increasing physical challenges would require her to move into the Pillsbury Manor care facility in South Burlington. But she was one of the first people to sign up for a spot in the Lodge at Otter Creek, a setting that she said she enjoys and that allows her to visit more conveniently with Addison County friends and family.
Though she and Charles never had children, she has many cousins and distant family members throughout the country. Some of those relatives have lived past 100, a testament that genetics — as well as good nutrition — have played a role in Charlotte’s longevity. A petite woman who now relies on a walker, Charlotte is amazingly energetic and conversant for a person who has reached the century mark.
She has witnessed a lot of history in her life.
GOINGS ON IN THE WORLD
During the year she was born, U.S. troops left Cuba after having been there since the Spanish-American War; the centennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth was celebrated; and William Howard Taft succeeded Theodore Roosevelt as 27th president of the U.S. Others born in 1909 included Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Errol Flynn and Barry Goldwater.
She has seen a lot of elections, but has never been into politics.
“I started learning about the presidents when I became 100 because they sent me birthday cards,” Charlotte said with a smile.
The cards, from Presidents Obama, Carter, Clinton and Bush, are proudly displayed on a bureau leading into her comfortable suite.
“(The presidents) became suddenly more important to me,” Charlotte said, beaming. “But politics — you just aren’t into politics if you are working all the time. And we were working all the time.”
Charlotte was 8 years old when the U.S. entered World War I. She said she doesn’t remember too much about the so-called “war to end all wars.” She does remember the flu pandemic of 1918-1919, however.
“We had neighbors, a man and a woman who died, just within two days, and they had two children who were friends of mine,” Charlotte recalled. “I was old enough that I did realize how terrible it was to have your mother and father die.”
She of course lived through World War II, and said she was fortunate that her family didn’t suffer any deaths as a result of the massive global conflict.
Charlotte enjoyed traveling during her younger years, with one of the highlights being a 57-day worldwide trip she and her husband took in 1957.
Nowadays, she enjoys visiting with her fellow residents at the Lodge and taking in the scenery outside her window. She does not watch much TV, but does some reading.
“I got sick of TV in the last election,” Charlotte said, with a hearty laugh.
Charlotte does like to go to a weekly tea and wine party, as well as on various field trips organized by the Lodge.
She was treated to several parties on and around her birthday, including festivities at the Lodge and at Fore & Ice Restaurant. Many of those at the gatherings asked her for advice on how to live a long, healthy life. She has an entire list, which includes such hints as:
• Live a simple life.
• Eat good, nutritious food.
• Have a positive attitude and laugh a lot.
• Get a good night’s sleep and take a nap when you can.
• Surround yourself with caring people.
• Stay in contact with family and friends.
• Never hold a grudge; just turn the page and keep smiling.
Charlotte has never been a smoker, but has had — and still occasionally does have — a cocktail or two. She is particularly fond of champagne.
“I used to have a martini every night, either in front of the fireplace or on the patio; it was very nice,” Charlotte said.
She admitted that her tolerance for alcohol has lessened over the years. Charlotte recently had a martini and said, “By the second swallow, I was knocking the glass, so I don’t do much drinking. I talk about it.”