Image of Mary Denny in her room
Mary Denny sits in her chair while giving life advice to future generations. "Work hard, pray a lot and exercise. Even if you don't feel like working, do it anyways," she said. Asha Blake/ The Portager.

Suffield native Mary Denny celebrates her 111th birthday

Nestled in the heart of Suffield, a barn roof reads in slate gray: 1912.

Two years prior, on June 10, Mary Denny was born in a log cabin. Her father had bought a home in Suffield on Waterloo Road just after she was born. He built a barn and plated “1912” on the roof to mark the year it was built. 

Mary now lives in Hartville, where she is celebrating her 111th birthday among her friends and family. She is among the oldest living people in the world (the oldest is a 118-year-old Japanese woman). 

In an interview in her room at the Homestead assisted living facility, soft-spoken Mary spun the captivating tale of her life. Dressed in a soft red shirt with her hair neatly parted, her bright blue eyes traced the old photos and cards hanging on her walls. Memories and moments came flooding back.

Mary grew up in a large family, the youngest of seven, with four brothers and two sisters. Her earliest memory was of her father and family reunions that her family would have every year. He was a self-made butcher, and customers would file cards with their orders, which Mary has kept since 1919. 

“I loved my dad. He died young. My dad was living yet when we had the last reunion,” Mary said. “He had black wavy hair with gray streaks in it, and he always wore suits to match his hair.”

Among the many memories on Denny’s walls, one picture she had was a collage of herself through different phases of her life. Asha Blake/The Portager.

Mary’s father passed away from an unexpected seizure when she was 6. Mary’s mother grieved the loss of her husband for the rest of her life. She grew despondent and often cried during drives to the homes of relatives, with Mary at the wheel as young as 14. Mary often remembers stages of her life by the car she drove, the make and model and whose car it was. 

Like her other siblings, Mary worked jobs starting at a young age, often for no pay. She drove a Ford Model T to and from a berry farm, where she helped growers harvest their produce. Mary also helped babysit the kids in her family.

“I took care of a lot of my nieces and nephews,” Mary said. “I changed all of their diapers. And now some of them are retired.”

Before she could drive, she walked three miles to school at St. Joe’s.

“I walked out that way six miles a day,” Mary said. “I didn’t miss a day.”

After attending St. Joe’s for two years, Mary graduated from Suffield High School. 

She was a phenomenal athlete and loved playing basketball. Goodyear hosted an all-girls basketball team and asked her to play for them after hearing about her skills on the court. But the drive to Akron was too much for Mary and she declined the offer.

She picked up a job as a waitress at a neighborhood saloon. She met and married a coworker, Russ Denny, in 1938. On her wall, filled with photos from her life, memories from past birthdays, celebrations and cards from loved ones, hangs a stoic black and white portrait of Mary and Russ. Mary is dark-haired, beautiful but with serious eyes. She isn’t smiling, but you can see the corners of her mouth faintly upturned.

“We lived with my mom,” Mary said. “When I got married she just begged us to stay. So we lived with her. The three of us together. My husband and I ran the saloon and the tavern on the corner.”

Russ was drafted into the military when he was 36 and sent to training overseas. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Russ was active overseas for three years, and every day he was gone brought more worry to Mary.

“He came back safe,” she said. “God protected him to bring him home to me. There were a lot of his buddies that were not brought home.”

Russ and Mary went fishing like clockwork. Up at dawn to get on the water and home at noon to clean the fish. They especially loved ice fishing in nearby lakes and reservoirs. 

“We would usually catch around 500 fish,” she said. “It was good when the weather was right, but the weather wasn’t always right during the winter.”

They gave away many of the fish to friends and neighbors, who could always count on the Denny Catch of the Day to eat for lunch or dinner.

Denny shows off her rosary and prays for people that she knows. “Saying the rosary, praying and watching the Catholic channel are things that make me happy,” Denny said. Asha Blake/The Portager.

Mary’s mother died in 1956 and her husband in 1995. She continued living on her own and set about remodeling the house: new siding, new roof, a wheelchair ramp. She continued driving  until she was 93. 

Mary’s tenacity still shows today, as she looks forward to her years ahead and fondly on the days passed. What’s the secret to life? Or more like, what’s the secret to 111 years of life?

“Prayer and hard work,” she said. “I pray a lot. I have a little rosary that I carry ever since I went to high school. I’m proud of everything I have accomplished. God gave me a good mind.”

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Annie Zwisler is a Portager contributor. She can be reached at [email protected].