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Article updated: 9/26/2013 10:24 AM

Suburban centenarians look back on a lifetime of friendship

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Not many people reach their 100th birthday, and even fewer get to do it with their best friend by their side.

But when Irene Cook and Alice Jensen joke and eat lunch together, reminiscing about their days jumping rope or playing cards after school, it's easy to see how the pair have stayed friends for almost a century. And with Jensen's partial hearing loss and Cook's difficulty seeing, together the two form a perfect pair, family members joke.

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Both born in 1913, Jensen and Cook grew up one street apart in the same Chicago neighborhood and met during first grade at St. Gregory's Catholic School. Jensen would stop by Cook's house every morning on the way to school and wait for her to come outside.

"I didn't want to go in because there were so many kids in there," she recalls in reference to Cook's family of 18 siblings.

The two were part of a group of six girls who were friends from childhood throughout their lives, but Jensen and Cook are the only ones left.

"When you're from the same neighborhood, you stick close together," said Cook, who now lives with her granddaughter in Addison.

The girls would take the streetcar around Chicago and spend seven cents on a movie on the weekends. They grew up without microwave ovens, vacuums, dishwashers or television. Chickens ran around in their backyards. By the time she was 11, Cook was walking down to the Piggly Wiggly store by herself to buy food for the family.

"Things were so different," she said.

Before Jensen could go out to play she had to peel potatoes for her family every night.

"I've never seen anyone peel potatoes as fast as her," Cook remembered.

The two have outlived their husbands, siblings and friends, but they still have one another. The secret to a friendship that has lasted nearly a century is simple, they said.

"I always look for the better side of people. I don't look for faults -- that's what we built our friendship on," said Jensen who lives at Luther Village in Arlington Heights.

"We just liked each other. We got along," Cook said.

When asked what they like best about each other, Irene joked, "Nothing." "That I could tell her of," Alice responds. The two laugh.

More seriously, though, "I never gave that a thought, just that she's a good friend," Cook said.

While friendship came easily, life over the past 100 years has brought its struggles for the two.

The Great Depression hit while the girls were teenagers and both had to drop out of high school to go to work and help their families. They worked together at the original Illinois Bell Co., sitting next to one another and connecting calls.

Though both were soon married and starting their own families, they still made time for dinner and card nights.

"No one had a lot of money. Everyone was in the same boat," Cook said. "We didn't have much, but we had friendship."

The two kept their friendship going as their children grew and both took retirement in Florida. When Cook's husband passed away, Jensen and her husband would take her to dinner to cheer her up.

When the two moved back to Illinois in the 1980s and 1990s, their friendship fell back into place through long phone conversations at least once a week.

Jensen went back to get her high school diploma from Arlington High School in the 1980s with her biggest cheerleader, Cook, supporting her.

"There isn't anything she couldn't do," Cook said.

Asked if they've had any big fights over the years, Jensen said she couldn't remember any.

"I'm sure there were some disagreements at some point," Cook said.

"Maybe we'll argue now," Jensen bantered back.

But a fight doesn't look likely as the women hold hands and talk about their lives. They laugh about Cook's granddaughter's bright green nail polish.

"Can you believe that color?" Cook said, shaking her head.

A shared sense of humor has gone a long way in maintaining their bond, they said.

The two attended each other's 100th birthday parties over the summer surrounded by family members. Neither feels her age.

"When we start thinking about how old we are, we're really lucky to have lived this long and been friends this long," Cook said. "When you think of it, it's a long time."

"I'm working on 200," Jensen joked.

She remembers a quote she heard years ago that applies to her and Cook now and in the future.

"If in heaven we don't meet, we'll stand hand in hand in the flames."

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