The guest of honor took in the much ado about herself contentedly, gray hair tucked under a tall birthday hat fashioned of felt and blazing with six faux, felt-flamed candles, a slight smile at play on her lips.
Six candles because friends and family couldn’t possibly have fit 102 candles onto Dorothy Purser’s hat April 13 during her birthday celebration at Merrill Gardens Senior Living Community in downtown Auburn.
And the smile? Who knows, maybe the flattering, 96-year discrepancy between candle numbers and age. Whatever the reason, she held onto it even through the conga line of well wishers who asked the question always posed to anyone of her vintage: what’s your secret to long life?
“I sipped a little home brew once in a while,” Purser said, as family friend Brooke Lizotte played piano for her during the shindig in the crowded lunchroom at Merrill Gardens.
“She is a venerable soul. I want to know what she ate for breakfast,” Lizotte said with a laugh.
“Her secret has always been, two eggs every morning and a glass of wine in the afternoon,” volunteered Purser’s daughter, Shelley O’Neil.
Purser and her husband raised three daughters: Bonnie, deceased, Joan and Shelley. She has three grandchildren — Tiffany, Jeff and Greg — and two great-granddaughters, Kate and Julia.
Locals may remember Purser as the owner for many years of Dorothy’s Styling Salon on 12th and G Streets. It’s still around, though the name has changed to Colour Collection.
“She has always been extremely active and very social,” said O’Neil. “She spent her life talking to people, and she has an excellent sense of humor.”
One of her favorites jokes was about a beauty shop. Two women were talking and wondering if there were beauty shops in heaven. One said to the other, “Send me a message and let me know.” And the woman gets this message that says, “Good news. There are beauty shops in heaven; the bad news is you’re on the books for next Thursday.”
Until Purser’s recent move to Merrill Gardens, she’d been living in the home she’d lived in since 1961, when she and her husband, Vince, moved from Algona to Auburn. He passed away in 1990 on his 65th birthday.
Purser has been active all of her life. She and her husband were avid boaters, and she loved to swim and water ski. In the late 1960s, she took up snow skiing, and in the 1980s, she took up golf, which she enjoyed up to her 98th year.
“If she were home now, she’d be bent over at the waist — she never kneels to do anything — pulling weeds in her garden,” said O’Neil.
Purser’s family actually celebrated two birthdays on April 13 — her own, and that of her great-granddaughter, Julia Holland, born exactly 10 years earlier.
Born on April 13, 1920, in Ellensburg, Washington, as Dorothy Saunders, Purser was the sixth of seven children born and raised on a dairy farm in the now-defunct railroad town of Lester at the base of Mt. Rainier.
Her father, a world-record-holding tarp fisherman, two of her brothers and brothers-in-law were engineers for the Northern Pacific Railroad. The family farm provided dairy products to local logging camps during the Great Depression.
Dorothy left Lester when she was 16 to attend beauty school in Seattle and spent her life as a licensed beautician, to date, the longest licensed beautician in the state. She opened her own salon in Algona in 1955 and moved to Auburn in 1961, where she opened the salon she would continue to operate until she sold it in 1999 when she was 79 years old. Although she no longer works publicly, she kept up her license until she hit 98. In the late 1950s she was president of the local hairdressers’ association.
Her mother’s sense of humor, O’Neil said, has never left her.
On one occasion in her 80s, O’Neil said, her mother had a new boyfriend, and one of her granddaughter’s girlfriends, taking rueful note of this fact, asked: “How does your grandmother have a new boyfriend, and I can’t even get a date?”
“At my age, if you can see to drive, and you’ve got your own hips, you’re a catch.”