Editorial: 111-year-old's lessons for a life well lived

Make close friends.

Be charitable to others.

Appreciate a good joke.

Merle Phillips wasn't one to hand out much advice on her birthday Monday for living long (she turned 111) and living well. But the stories of her life add up to a recipe for just that. Phillips blew out the candles after going on a party bus tour of her favorite spots in Carol Stream and Wheaton, including the house where she lived until she was 107.

Her life is not a tale of ease and comfort. Born on April 2, 1907, the year before Ford rolled out the Model T, she didn't know her father, who died when she was 4 months old. She lost her husband, Leonard, to leukemia 50 years ago and never remarried. She worked long hours and did not have children, but baby-sat for many, some of whom remain in touch with her to this day.

"Have a good attitude regardless of what happens," Phillips counseled as she swayed to music in her purple sweater in a room decorated with balloons and crowded with friends.

Don't we all want to be like Phillips? Moments from her life offer more insights for following in her path.

For instance, keep busy.

She wrote her first book at 72 and now has written 11 about her life and her faith in God.

She retired from her job working in a chemistry lab and then traveled the world, spending time as a Christian missionary.

She marked her 110th birthday last year by climbing into the bucket of a ladder truck with Carol Stream firefighters to get an aerial view of the Belmont Village Senior Living community in Carol Stream, where she lives.

Another lesson: Remember to have fun.

Phillips once pranked Belmont executive director Jeanne Hansen by inviting her up for a slice of sponge cake that really was a sponge covered in Cool Whip.

"She still doesn't know what I did this year," Phillips quipped on the day after April Fools' Day.

Finally, keep your focus on helping others.

"Everything she does is about someone else," a friend commented about Phillips, who, via a GoFundMe page, asked birthday well-wishers to give to the Spectrios Institute for Low Vision instead of giving her gifts. She helped fund the butterfly garden and renovation of the aviary at Cosley Zoo in Wheaton in honor of her husband, a butterfly collector.

A long life is in large part pure luck, and few of us will reach 111.

A good life, full of interests and friends, staying focused on the world around us rather than turning inward as we grow older, is within reach for many of us.

Phillips has a lot to teach us about that, no matter how old we are.

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