99-year-old's longevity secret? Hot dog, fries and a Diet Coke at Portillo's

Ask 99-year-old Helen Diekman for the secret to her longevity, and she'll jokingly tell you:


Diekman, who keeps by her bedside a photo of herself and eatery founder Dick Portillo snapped at the Elgin location's grand opening in 2013, is a loyal customer. For nearly two years, she stopped for lunch up to three times a week, always ordering her favorite meal - hot dog with everything minus hot peppers, fries and a Diet Coke.

And on Friday, the restaurant returned the love.

Her visits to Portillo's stopped in December, when a severe back injury confined the Elgin resident to bed. Her goal while going through rehab and physical therapy, she said, was to get healthy enough to walk into Portillo's.

It was almost mission-accomplished Friday, when Diekman was wheeled into the store by her son Michael and greeted by festive balloons and smiling store employees, friends and caretakers.

"I was so surprised today," she said, as customers young and old greeted her. "I know a lot of the staff, and I was here opening day. I wanted to come back."

When a customer asked Diekman about her secret to longevity, her reply was "Portillo's!" But when speaking a little more seriously with a reporter, she said it was a simple formula: "I go to bed early and I eat good. Of course I go to church," she said. "And I have a lot of friends."

Diekman showed remarkable will during her recovery, said personal trainer Nancy Meaney, who's known her for about two months.

"I train lots of people, and her demeanor, her outlook - just the cheer and energy she brings," she said. "She's always excited to work out."

Diekman can take a few steps on her walker, but it's safer for her to use a wheelchair while out and about, her son said.

Her affinity for Portillo's predates the Elgin restaurant; she used to frequent the Hanover Park location - always accompanied by a relative or caretaker, Michael Diekman said.

It's always a pleasure to see Diekman at the restaurant, said Portillo's employees Pat Burrgess and Beverly Reif, both of whom visited her at home after her injury.

"When she met Mr. Portillo she fell in love with him," Reif said. "She's always talking about nothing but him."

Diekman, whose husband, Clifford, was an Elgin firefighter who died about 50 years ago, volunteered at Sherman Hospital in Elgin for about 30 years. That's where she met Carol Malohn of Pingree Grove, who also attended Friday's celebration. "She's just a sweetie," Malohn said.

Diekman said she plans to celebrate her 100th birthday Nov. 6 just like she did the last two - at Portillo's, eating its celebrated chocolate cake.

"Is it ever good!" she said. "Nom nom."

  Helen Diekman, 99, of Elgin blows out the candles on a cake that Portillo's gave her in celebration of her recovery from a recent injury. Rick West/
  Portillo's presented a cake to Helen Diekman, 99, of Elgin on Friday. She has gone to Portillo's up to three times a week for lunch ever since it opened. Rick West/
  Helen Diekman, 99, of Elgin and Portillo's employee Beverly Reif chat at the restaurant in Elgin on Friday. Reif visited Diekman at home when she was recovering from a back injury that kept her away from the restaurant for months. Rick West/
  Helen Diekman, 99, of Elgin celebrates after blowing out the last of three candles on a cake at Portillo's in Elgin. Rick West/
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