Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: One day at a time for Tacoma centenarian who’s about to turn 107

Ask Wilma Rosenow what her favorite movie is and, as with many of us, the title doesn’t spring to mind.

“That movie where they had the song ‘The Sheik of Araby ...’ ” she said.

That would be “The Sheik,” starring Rudolph Valentino, which made its debut in 1921 and was so popular it spawned the song a year later.

Rosenow was an impressionable 14 years old that year.

Born the 11th of 12 children to parents who homesteaded in Montana, she is now 106, just days shy of her 107th birthday on Friday.

She hasn’t loved a movie in quite awhile. What about books?

“I loved ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’ as a child, and James Michener’s ‘Hawaii,’ ” Rosenow said. “And there was a wonderful book on the Panama Canal that fascinated me.”

Though she still watches television, she prefers not to.

“If I catch myself watching too much TV, I’ll turn it off and get out and do something,” she said.

Living in an assisted-living apartment at Narrows Glen in Tacoma the past seven years, Rosenow loves walking the gardens behind the main building, or sitting in the gazebo and watching the birds and squirrels at nearby feeders.

“I try to name the birds,” she said. “The squirrels all look alike to me. I got to be 106 by living day by day and realizing I’m not in charge. We are only pilgrims in the promised land.”

Her parents, Gottlieb and Wilhelmina Kiesser, were restless Germans who migrated first to Russia, then the United States, sponsored by American Baptists in 1892. The couple arrived with their first two children and little more than a German family Bible, which Rosenow still reads.

The family moved to Chicago, where Gottlieb became a carpenter and Wilhelmina gave birth to eight more children in 10 years.

Rosenow remembers the family moving to a Montana dry-land farm when she was 5, living in a large one-room building and suffering through winter storms she said dropped to more than 50 degrees below zero.

“My father would go to San Francisco and work as a carpenter and my mother and brothers would farm,” she said. “Father would come home when he could. Mother was the farmer.”

Rosenow became the first member of her family to attend and graduate from high school, and had to work as a maid for room and board the final two years.

In 1926, the year she turned 21, she and her mother moved to Tacoma.

“What I remember most is seeing the water,” she said. “We moved from a farm and I’d never seen a large body of water. I remember taking a boat ride and wondering ‘What kind of fish live down there?’”

She took jobs as a live-in house cleaner, cook and nanny for North End families, made friends and was introduced to the love of her life.

“I met Carl at a card party thrown by mutual friends,” she said. “They wanted me to meet him and said he was a swell fellow. He was a Tacoma fireman, and we were married in 1934.

“I wore a blue dress that cost $5.”

Carl and Wilma Rosenow had two children, Marlene and Richard, and both remain in her life today. Carl Rosenow worked his way up through the fire department to become a lieutenant.

“When Carl would study for one of the department tests, he’d write little notes and put them in his pockets so he could pull them out and read them again in a quiet moment,” she said. “He’d have little slips of paper in all his pockets.

“I lost him in 1952. He was 47 years old when he died. I was left with children, 14 and 16. I moved in with my mother and went to business college, became an accountant.”

Rosenow filled her life with her children and work, travel and hobbies. She took up oil painting, joined the Audubon Society, went snowshoeing at age 82.

“I will not wilt away,” she said. “I stay active.”

A fall caused by medication last year injured her lower back, left her slightly stooped. It slowed her walk, not her mind.

“I read the newspaper every day in our reading room, and I always do my daily puzzles,” she said.

In the 62 years since losing her husband, she said she has received and declined 14 marriage proposals. None of the men, she said, could match her fireman.

As for the future?

“I look ahead. I’m looking forward to my birthday,” she said, and smiled. “I’ll do well if I get there.”

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