In the year 1900, the life expectancy for a woman was 48 years old. For a man, it was a mere 46.
Tens of thousands of people died from pneumonia, influenza and tuberculosis every year.

But Elizabeth Will - born Mary Elizabeth Bundy on Oct. 15, 1900 - has been defying those statistics for decades.

About a month ago, she turned 111.

One of the oldest living people in North Carolina, Will resides in Sharon Towers' retirement community in SouthPark.

The last century has been, arguably, the most eventful in recorded history.

Will has lived through the Wright Brothers' first flight, the Titanic's sinking, the rise of penicillin and indoor plumbing, and her town's first automobile.

She's lived through World War I, the Great Depression, WWII, and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

She's seen the Civil Rights Movement, and 20 U.S. Presidents serving, including the nation's first black president.

Seventy-five years old when Microsoft was invented, Will has watched the rise of home computers, the Internet, cell phones, Google, Facebook and Apple.

However, reminiscing now doesn't come as easily as it used to. Sitting in a coffee room in Sharon Towers' skilled-nursing facility, Will uses a headset to aid her hearing. Even then, it's a struggle to piece together a conversation.

It's difficult for her to complete a train of thought, and she gets frustrated when she can't.

But when she snags one of those cloudy memories, she smiles a toothless grin, and works hard to transfer the words from her brain to her tongue.

Naturally, you like to bring back your youth, she says.

With the help of her great-grand nephew, 71-year-old Clayton Bundy, who visits her often, piecing together a life lived so fully is easier.

Says Bundy: Like Frank Sinatra, she's done it her way.

As a young child, Will lived in a large, white wooden home along the main stretch of Lancaster Street in downtown Monroe.

Her great-grandfather John D. Stewart was one of the town's founders.

Her parents, S.B. and Elizabeth, had five sons and four daughters.

Bundy recalls his one of his great aunt's earliest memories. She and her older sister, Sadie, were very young when they took a day trip into Charlotte with their parents by horse and buggy.

They bought a hat for (their mom) to wear to church and turned around to come back home, said Bundy.

That was a big thing to us, said Will.

When Will was young, her family moved to Charlotte. She attended Queens College for a little while, studying music to be a concert pianist.

When her father died, she withdrew.

Always extremely independent and self-sufficient, Will left Charlotte in her 20s, to take a job at the Veterans Administration in Fayetteville.

She spent her vacation time traveling the world. She visited Paris, Rome, Naples, Florence, Venice, Brussels, London, Heidelberg, Milan, and dozens more.

She didn't let any grass grow under her feet, said Bundy.

Will maintained a scrapbook with photos from her trips and correspondences with her coworkers at the VA. One letter from coworker Elizabeth Kenny says: I have been wondering who, oh who, will take your place in breaking the awful silence, so depressing during the hours between 8:30 and 4:15. ...We will miss your cheery voice, sweet smile and winning personality. With all my love I wish you a safe journey and a jolly good time.

It was on one of her early cruises that she noticed people were doing fancy dancing, and decided to take ballroom dance lessons at a Fred Astaire Dance Studio when she returned.

I think she was ahead of her time, said Elizabeth Byrd, Sharon Towers' director of health care and assisted living activities.

Will's generation of women married young and stayed home to raise their children. She didn't marry Victor Will, a sales manager for Fuller Brush, until she was 41 years old.

According to family lore, Victor Will - a kind man, well respected in the community - gave a young man by the name of Billy Graham one of his first jobs, said Bundy.

Because they married so late in life, Will and Victor didn't have children. They lived together off Randolph Road until Victor died of Alzheimer's at age 65.

She sang in the church choir at St. Luke's Lutheran off Park Road for 43 years.

After her husband died, Will continued traveling. She was a regular in the Charlotte Observer's society columns. Headlines such as Mrs. Will Tours the West, and Mrs. Will Visits the South Pacific, tell of her grand travels.

After a 15-day trip, she told the Observer: I don't understand why more people don't travel to Alaska. ...The scenic beauty of Portage Glacier is magnificent.

The staff at Sharon Towers loves Mrs. Will.

She moved into Sharon Towers' independent-living facility in her mid-80s, and it wasn't until her late 90s that she moved into assisted living.

But unlike many of her neighbors, who took their meals in their room, Will would go downstairs and eat with the seniors in independent living.

She dressed up every evening and would go down and eat with the 'young people,' said Byrd.

She was about the only person who would do that.

Will was still in assisted living on her 100th birthday party in 2000, when she stunned everyone with her remarkably well-oiled acumen.

She stood up, and there were about 35 people there, and she talked about each one individually, said Bundy.

At 108 years old, she was still going to the Sharon Towers ballroom for dances and social functions, where most everyone was in their 70s and 80s.

She would go down in her walker and would dance, said Sharon Towers nurse Rachel Perscola.

She would stay till it ended.

Three years later, at 111 years old, Will uses a power wheelchair, and lives in Sharon Towers' skilled-nursing facility.

She dons a peach sweater jacket and pearl-colored buttons and a match print skirt. A black patent leather purse is hooked on the back of her wheelchair.

There's still a lot of life in Will. Her feisty - spitfire, the nurses joke - personality is still very much there, and she's quick to call people out on getting sassy.

Like all of her neighbors, Will has a shadow box on the wall outside her bedroom.

Interspersed with photos of her family, Will has snapshots of her adventures: she and Victor at the altar; ballroom dancing; her seated in a luxurious dining room, meeting the captain of one of the many ships she rode on; her on a camel in the desert. While rearranging the photos that try to capture 111 years of life fully lived, Perscola shakes her head and grins: She's fabulous.

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