• July 22, 2014

Fritz Hoffmann Wishes Bernice Madigan a Happy 115th Birthday

How old are you? Bernice Madigan celebrates her 115th birthday this week on July 24, 2014. Subtract your age from 115 and ponder for a moment. There is so much ahead for you.

The pictures I’ve made are mile markers in my life of photography. The people I’ve photographed are always more remarkable than the pictures. The editing process is tough because you want only the best pictures to be printed, but that means some people are left out of the magazine. These are people who’ve let me into their homes, and their lives, on the hope that their story would be told and archived in the stacks of the yellow-bordered magazine that fill homes and libraries around the world. Sometimes, the picture just didn’t measure up to the person.

Picture of a contact sheet of portraits of supercentenarian Bernice Madigan
A contact sheet of portraits of Bernice Madigan at age 113 shot as possible cover photos for a magazine story on longevity and genetics.

For “On Beyond 100,” a feature in the May 2013 issue of National Geographic, I traveled to three countries and photographed 35 people. The story was structured around people of exceptional health near a century old. I arrived at each person’s home and we spent two or three days together. I sat with them. We walked together. We dined together. I always try to maintain a position of professional objectivity lest I forget why I am there and they misunderstand my intention. But when in California, 99-year-old Francis Zvarra baked me an apple pie. How could I not eat a slice? (The best apple pie I’ve had.) When I left 101-year-old Guissepe Romero’s home in Italy, he wouldn’t let me go without a bottle of his homemade tomato sauce—a taste of perfection. Morrell Martin was an exceptionally energetic man of 97. He lived in San Diego and was a participant in the Scripps Wellderly Study on Aging. For a time after the story, we chatted by phone. Morrell seemed to live the motto of his generation: “Always look on the bright side of life,” and he added a little dance shuffle to that for punctuation.

As a photographer, you walk into a person’s life and ask a great deal from them. You can’t expect to not give something in return, even if that is only to sit with them and to listen. 102-year-old Joe Piro lived alone. He was a World War II veteran who spent his career as a pressman not far from where he was born in Somerville, Massachusetts. The first day of our visit, I followed Joe on his walk around the neighborhood, and then we spent the rest of the time in his apartment recalling his stories about landing on the wrong beach on D-day. The next day I arrived and he said he needed a lift to the VA. How could I tell Joe that I couldn’t drive him to the VA? How could I photograph natural moments of Joe and drive at the same time? The pictures would have to wait. Joe needed a lift.

Picture of Bernice Madigan sitting in the kitchen with her family on their farm in Cheshire, Massachusetts
Bernice Madigan returned to Cheshire, Massachusetts several years ago from Washington, D.C., where she had lived for 90 years. She now lives on the Rolling Acres Farm, owned by her niece’s family, the Daniels. Bernice is known as ‘Bennie’ and ‘Aunt Bennie’ around the farm. Her friends everywhere call her ‘Aunt Bennie’ too.

I worked on this story over a four-month period, and then I went on to the next story, which was totally different, about toxic waste sites. But the memories of supercentenarians live on and the lessons learned, advice I was given, often come to mind:

“Keep the company of those younger than you.”
“Stay active.”
“Eat a hot meal for breakfast each day.”
“Do not regret getting older. It’s a privilege denied many.”

When I arrived at the Daniels farm in Cheshire, Massachusetts, Bernice was seated, holding a heavy cloth-bound volume, reading the biography of President Ronald Reagan. She looked up and said, “I liked him. But my favorite was Eisenhower,” the 34th President of the United States. I had to stop for a moment and consider that, to have been a witness to the history that has spanned a life that began in 1899.

Picture of 113-year-old Bernice Madigan holding her 7-month-old great-great-grand niece on her lap
113-year-old Bernice Madigan with her 7-month-old great-great-grand niece Nadine Daniels.

Hear Bernice Madigan speak about living into old age
Bernice was born in the West Springfield, Massachusetts, on July 24, 1899. In 1918, she answered President Wilson’s call for women to come to the nation’s capital to assist with World War I efforts. Bernice’s father took her to New Haven, Connecticut and put her on the Federal Express, the train line that ran between Boston and Washington. Her description of the capital lit by gaslight drew a picture that illuminated an image in my mind. “They took me for a long ride that night I arrived in Washington. I saw Washington by night. Oh, the heavens opened up you know. I’d never seen anything like it,” Bernice told me. I was captivated by her story about how the Spanish flu gripped the city. “Girls were dying all around me. We all had it. We had it bad.” Bernice stayed in Washington for 90 years where she worked in the Treasury Department. Bernice is still sharp as a whip. She’s determined to top the charts as the oldest living person in the country (Go Bernice!).

My pictures of Bernice didn’t make the cut in our published story. Imagine the disappointment. I failed her, the fifth oldest living person on record in the world. Here she is now. Happiest 115th birthday to you Bernice!

See photos from the May 2013 feature story “Beyond 100” here.

To see more of Fritz Hoffmann’s work, visit his website and follow him on Instagram.

There are 42 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Hunter
    December 18, 2014

    Mrs. Madigan,

    Congratulations on all of your amazing accomplishments. You have witnessed so much history, and countless changes. I am beyond ecstatic that you are still one of 6 living people who were born in the 1800’s. All of your gratitude and strength has certainly and will continue to pay off. Happiness is key, and those who are happy only live for today. Getting older is a privilege because we get to experience more as we get older and learn more and become wiser. My greatest sympathies to you and your family. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!!!!!!

  2. celene
    December 11, 2014

    what an inspiration you are. My husband and I raised our family in west springfield and we still live here. you probably knew my husbands grandparents! I thought they said no one can live forever! Gosh were they wrong!!! God Bless you

  3. Jonathan A
    August 5, 2014


  4. ann minnich
    July 27, 2014

    Some of my dearest memories are of times spent with Aunt Bennie and Uncle Paul when visiting Bunka and Buddy, my grandparents in Bethesda Maryland many years ago. Love you Aunt Bennie

  5. Trina Haque
    July 27, 2014

    Happy Birthday Mrs. Madigan! I still remember your fun-loving spirit when we plotted together and had you over at our place to the great surprise of your niece, Mary. I am sure that your great good humor and sharp wit are part of the secret to your long and glorious life. Warmest congratulations on 115!!!!

  6. Rachel and Jeff
    July 26, 2014

    We have been so fortunate to know Bennie and her wonderful extended family. Bennie always find something great about each person she meets, and lets them know she found it. That makes it easy for her to make more and more friends all the time. What a great lesson for all of us! And she also shows us that you do not have to have children to be surrounded by people who love you as you age. Another great lesson that Bennie has taught us by her fine, fun-loving example!

  7. Elaine Daniels
    July 26, 2014

    Thank you, Fritz for the wonderful tribute to Aunt Bennie. You did not fail her. We know that it was not your decision to omit her from the article. You were very kind and considerate to her during the interview and she felt like a queen. It was unfortunate, but we understand that the higher powers made the cut. You were most gracious and we thank you for this beautiful article for her birthday. She has gotten a lot of hits on Facebook because of it and the comments are nice and we are enjoying them so much. Take care and visit sometime when you are in the neighborhood.

  8. Elaine Daniels
    July 25, 2014

    Thank you Fritz for your wonderful tribute to Aunt Bennie. It is one that she will teasure as will her family. I know there were circumstances beyond your control when it came to the article, but we understand that it wasn’t your decision. This was very thoughtful of you and she felt very honored. Thank you so much!

  9. Robert Yankyera Kofi
    July 25, 2014

    Jehovah has truly blessed you. May the rest of your life be a reflection of the bible views for man to leave eternal life on earth. Wish to be like you one day. Happy birth day great granny. I love you.

  10. M Madigan
    July 25, 2014

    you go woman…the Madigan family

  11. Hazel Hall
    July 25, 2014

    Happy Birthday Bennie!

  12. carrie
    July 25, 2014

    Bernice, your story has touched a person very depressed and lonely. Listening to your laughter made me laugh for the first time in a long time. What a beautiful gift you are. Thank you and Fritz. God bless you!

  13. Ian Wamijo
    July 25, 2014

    Congratulations Bennie! My mum is 88 and I hope to have many more years with her.

  14. Sue Flaherty
    July 24, 2014

    Thank you so very much for remembering Bennie today, Fritz! My family moved in next to Bennie and her husband many, many years ago when I was two, and I have known her ever since. She is truly a remarkable woman! We know that it was an honor to have National Geographic interested in her life story. Thank you for sharing that story today on Bennie’s 115th birthday.

  15. Mary Rose Francini
    July 24, 2014

    correct it her sister still alive and she is 98.

  16. Mary Rose Francini
    July 24, 2014

    My mother is 94 years old and her grandmother was 95 and her brother Alphonse was 91 in 2004 and her brother was 90 in 2005 and her sister was 95 in 2007 but her sister still alive and she is 96.

  17. Mary Rose Francini
    July 24, 2014

    Happy Birthday Bernice!!!! 🙂

  18. Mary Rose Francini
    July 24, 2014

    my mother is 94 years old but she is mild of her brain dementia also she is health

  19. Anita
    July 24, 2014

    God Bless you Bernice ,many more birthdays to come, stay in the wonderful condition you are in.

  20. Cynthia
    July 24, 2014

    Bernice’s hearty laugh says it all! Laughter is the best medicine. Happy Birthday Bernice! By listening to you, you have inspired me.

  21. st
    July 24, 2014

    What beautiful and poignant pictures. I’m rooting for you, Bernice! May your days be many and your spirit continue to kick butt! Happy 115th!

  22. Attia
    July 24, 2014

    Happy Birthday Bernice you wow so thanskful you make people wish come true be long life.

  23. Beverly T
    July 24, 2014

    Happy Birthday, Bernice! I loved hearing your voice recorded on the internet, and seeing your photos. Thank you Fritz for sharing this beautiful woman with all of us!

  24. Marcia Williamson
    July 24, 2014

    Had the pleasure of taking care of this sweet lady in the hospital. I wish her many more years of happiness! You go, Bernie!

  25. Magdalen Bohlsen
    July 24, 2014

    At almost 96 years old am a subject of local wonder — but then Berniece is so much older than I. Go girl.

  26. Laura Robertson
    July 24, 2014

    Happy Happy Birthday Bernice! You are quite an inspiration!!

  27. Rosemary Morse
    July 24, 2014

    I turned 80 on June 27th, 2014, but reading about Bernice I suddenly feel young and vibrant. I think I am a young 80, at least that is what me doctor says, but Bernice is amazing in her attitude, he graciousness her courage and her faith. Go for it Bernice, my prayers are with you

  28. Mary Madigan Grimm
    July 24, 2014

    Thank you, Fritz, for writing such a beautiful tribute to Aunt Bennie. Today is her birthday, and I am sitting beside her as I write this. Her love of life, her curiosity, her sense of humor and her interest in books, music, people, and everything else under the sun are inspiring. Everyone should be as lucky as I have been to have an Aunt Bennie. I love her dearly.

  29. Mari Terbrueggen
    July 24, 2014

    Have a wonderful day and many great years ahead

    July 24, 2014


  31. Judith Johnson
    July 24, 2014

    As a nurse practitioner with four patients over age 100 at this time, I loved this article, and found the pictures very moving. May Bernice and all others gracefully aging, be blessed.

  32. John Bunker
    July 24, 2014

    Happy Birthday. May your special day be the very best. great article and profile.

  33. Carolyn Gentry
    July 24, 2014

    Happy Birthday, Bernice. I have known your niece Mary Grimm for many years. I know that she will relay stories about your remarkably happy and long life. With warm wishes on your 115th.

  34. Judy Haberkorn
    July 24, 2014

    Aunt Bennie is an inspiration to all of us. Fritz Hoffman has done a great thing by sharing her story and some that I didn’t know. God bless you, Fritz!

  35. Laurence E Ogden
    July 24, 2014

    I clearly remember walking arm-in-arm with my ‘Granma Lizzie’ when I was a 14 year old boy. She was born in 1851 and lived to 104, amazingly before the Brothers War, and was 63 when WW1 began, and 88 when Hitler invaded Poland. Now I am 73 in 2014, it’s hard to get my head around the ‘how and why’ of time, and how something so real to me in my memory could have been so long ago!

  36. Aimee
    July 24, 2014

    Happy Birthday Bernice!!

  37. Jay Payton
    July 23, 2014

    Incredible! What a blessed life to live to see all the changes in this world. Wishing Bernice the best!

    July 23, 2014

    America should wish Aunt Bennie a happy 115th birthday – she is an extraordinary woman who has lived through more than we can even ponder. Thanks, Fritz – this story needs to be told!

  39. Luann
    July 23, 2014

    A Very Happy Birthday Bernice. 115 Wow I’m impressed. You go girl.

  40. Gail Py
    July 23, 2014

    Happy birthday to Bernice! Wow, what an amazing person. My grandparents are both 86, married for 65 years, however, neither is as sharp as this incredible woman. Thank you for the article.

  41. Janet Payne
    July 22, 2014

    I hope all the people around Bernice will ask her all about her life. Seeing her makes me wish I still had my parents here to ask them all the things I didn’t think to ask them when they were alive.

  42. Jeanette Botha
    July 22, 2014

    Love this article!

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