Posted on 28 Sep 2009
Astrid Thoenig dressed, got to the office and sat at her desk smiling as usual at the Thornton Insurance Co. in Parsipanny, New Jersey, as she slid her finger gently under the envelope flap of yet another identical birthday card -- just one of many wishing Thoenig a "Happy 100th."
Thoenig was interrupted by a steady stream of deliverymen bringing bouquets, chocolate-dipped strawberries and stacks of cards to the family-owned insurance company where she's been answering phones, keeping financial records, handling payroll and typing up documents for more than 30 years.
"It's another day — it's hard to explain," Thoenig said of turning 100. "I don't feel old, and I don't think old."
Born Sept. 24, 1909, in Bloomfield, N.J., Thoenig's earliest memories start in 1918, when she witnessed something so traumatic, "it erased all memories of my childhood before that."
"I remember coming down the stairs from my bedroom and saw these two coffins in the living room: one white, for my sister, and the other for the grown person," she said, recalling how the flu pandemic of 1918 killed her father and her 10-year-old sister within hours of one another. "To see my father and sister — of all the things I can't remember — that's very vivid in my mind."
Thoenig, her remaining sister, and her mother also were infected but survived. Her mother lived until 101 and her sister, who suffered permanent hearing loss from the illness, was 95 when she died. A few years ago, scientists tracked Thoenig down and took blood samples from her as one of the few remaining survivors of the pandemic of 1918-1919 that killed an estimated 30 million to 50 million people worldwide, including thousands in New Jersey.
As Thoenig turns 100, her grandson, 43-year-old Peter Thornton, said she couldn't have picked a better era.
"If you had to pick a dramatic century to live, it has to be Astrid's," he said. "The invention of the automobile and the airplane, television and computers, the moon landing and two world wars. 1780 to 1880 would have seen changes from a musket to a rifle."
Thoenig says "thinking young" has helped her take a century's worth of technological changes in stride. The daughter of Swedish immigrants, she credits her strong constitution, a wonderful family and getting up every day to get dressed and go to work with keeping her mind sharp.
Thoenig once sewed all her own clothes and still dresses elegantly, accenting with gold jewelry, colorful glasses and a full head of blond hair that makes her look decades younger. Her strong, agile hands come from a lifetime of typing, knitting and embroidering.
Married twice — her first husband died from injuries that earned him a Purple Heart in World War II — Thoenig started working shortly after high school, and has held positions at banks, lawyer's offices and for the borough of Caldwell.
Her current job is her favorite — working alongside her son, John Thornton, and grandson Peter at the family’s insurance company.
"I'm 67, and one of our jokes is: 'How can I retire before my mother does?'" John Thornton said. He says his mother is a meticulous worker, reviewing contracts, preparing the payroll, making sure bills are paid, and is always pleasant company.
Thoenig credits her son for giving her the job, taking her to work — although she still drove until age 98 when a botched hip operation made it difficult to get around — and always being patient.
The growing stack of birthday cards may have identical motifs, but the messages inside them each touched her in their own way. Some, sent by people she's never met, were from seniors who continue to work and are inspired by her example: "I'm at my job 37 years and still love it," someone wrote.
She took special delight in a bouquet from her dentist with the message: "This is only the beginning!"