Cheney’s St. Rose of Lima Church was overflowing last Sunday. So was the guest book, filled with names of family and friends helping Celia Kelly celebrate the beginning of another year.
Kelly, daughter of one of Cheney’s pioneer families, turned 107 last week. Her fans were out full force.
“We’ve been having these parties for her since she was 85,” said grandson Wayne Shaw. “As she started getting closer to her 100s, we outgrew the house.”
Kelly now lives in an adult care home in the Spokane Valley, but she wouldn’t dream of having the party anywhere but Cheney.
“I lived there so long and know so many people,” she explained.
Kelly sat at the front of the room, embracing 96 pairs of hands as guests filtered past her.
“When I get older, if I’m like Celia, I’ll be happy,” said Marilyn Elliott, who used to serve lunch to Kelly at the Cheney Community Center.
Kelly’s secret, say those who know her, is refusing to get old. She became the oldest finisher in Bloomsday history in 1996 at the age of 105. She lived on her own until she was 101, raising chickens and cows on the farm her parents homesteaded.
Despite hip replacement and eye surgeries, the tiny, white-haired woman remains in good health, getting around with a pair of canes.
“It’s like she just stayed young as the world kept changing,” said Priscilla Martin, who drove the Spokane Transit Authority van that regularly picked Celia up from her Cheney home. The world has changed a lot in the span of Kelly’s life. She tilts her head, trying to coax to the surface memories from her youth a century ago.
“Oh, time has gone by, and so have I,” she laughs. “Let’s see. We used to have lots of good times.”
Born in Iowa on Feb. 13, 1891, Kelly and her parents, Matthew and Josephine Ludwig, moved to Washington three years later. They homesteaded on Depot Springs Road just outside Cheney.
As a child, Kelly rode a horse two miles to the tiny Pine Grove school, then hurried home along with brother Frank to help on the farm. On weekends, the Ludwigs would join neighbors for dancing parties and picnics at Fish Lake.
She remembers late-night winter sleigh rides, the jingling sleigh full of neighbors sometimes not pulling back up to her house until 4 a.m.
Not one to marvel at technology, she does still remember the first car she ever saw - “a great big heavy thing,” she says - and her first movie in downtown Spokane.
Occasionally the family would take a horse and buggy trip to Spokane to buy clothes at J.C. Penney.
Kelly attended Eastern Normal School, now EWU, and then taught grade school.
In 1927 she married John Kelly, a lumber yard operator she met at a party while in Montana visiting relatives.
“I was there, and he was there, and it went from there,” she says demurely.
The couple lived in Fort Benton, Mont., where daughter Josephine was born two years later. Soon after, John suffered a fatal heart attack. Kelly said she thinks it was 1932.
“That was a bad year,” she remembers. “Those were bad times for everyone.”
Newly widowed, Kelly and daughter Josephine moved back to her childhood home in Cheney. After her parents’ deaths in the 1940s, she continued running the farm.
Josephine later married and had two sons, one of whom lived with Kelly while he attended EWU.
“It was cool,” said Wayne Shaw. “She’s bubbly. She’s tough as nails. She definitely has a mind of her own.”
He said Kelly kept busy with community and church activities and once-weekly oil painting classes.
Kelly left the farm in 1992 at the age of 101. She lived with daughter Josephine and her husband, Bud Shaw, in Davenport for two years.
Celia Kelly takes her century-plus of experience in stride, which just may be her secret.
“It’s just like things nowadays,” she said. “You see it and then you go on.”
“She keeps saying this is the last year she wants a party,” said Wayne Shaw. “We keep telling her, ‘Oh, no. You’ll be back next year.”’