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Two Fallbrookians celebrate a century of life - Cleo Justus and Helen Hess reflect on 100 years of life and what makes them happy


Last updated 2/20/2014 at Noon

Cleo Justus, left, shares a warm embrace with her daughter-in-law, Norma Justus, during the 100th birthday celebration on Feb. 14.

The year that Cleo Justus and Helen Hess were born was the same that Charlie Chaplin made his film debut, Mary Phelps Jacobs patented the first bra, and average household earnings were $577. That year was 1914.

Justus and Hess, who both reside in Fallbrook, celebrated being centenarians at a special party hosted for them Feb. 14 by the Skilled Nursing Facility operated by Fallbrook Hospital (Community Health Systems).

With eyes that have seen a century worth of inventions, and recorded more experiences than the average life span provides, Justus and Hess have both gracefully sailed into the triple digit age.

When asked what their advice is for others in order to enjoy a long, happy life, Hess said “Do what you love. I love music and I love to play cards. I still enjoy both.”

“I suggest that people give their heart to God, because in him we live and he so loved this world that he gave his only son; then you have everlasting life,” said Justus.

Born only two days apart, Justus on Feb. 14 and Hess on Feb. 16, the ladies sat together at the gala luncheon that featured a bright, colorful Valentine’s theme and live music by a harpist.

In discussing their backgrounds, Justus explained she grew up in Arkansas and enjoyed a career as a licensed vocational nurse (LVN). She also said she had the pleasure of working under the supervision of former US President Bill Clinton’s mother.

“She was my boss and I was there when she gave birth to Bill; I helped take care of him; his family was wonderful,” said Justus.

Justus also said she loves music. From a family of musicians, she began playing instruments at the age of 6 and went on to master the piano, guitar, banjo, ukulele, bass, and mandolin.

“Cleo continues to play the piano for the staff and other residents [of the skilled nursing facility],” staff member Jennifer Young said. “Her favorite music is the blues; she is always thrilled to play the piano for anyone.” After living in Escondido since 1964, she moved to Fallbrook three years ago and said she is happy and content to be where she is.

The two centenarians have had different experiences and led interesting lives.

Hess was born in New Jersey and said, “I speak fluent Polish.” Married for many decades to professional boxer Goldie Hess, Hess said, “I went to a lot of boxing matches.”

After moving to the West Coast, Hess took one of her treasured family recipes to the retail market and established what was known as Grandma’s Polish Perogies in Redondo Beach. (Perogies are potato-filled dumplings made of unleavened dough which are boiled and then either baked or fried.)

Cleo Justus was 100 years old on Feb. 14.

“My grandfather was Polish and his mother taught my grandmother how to make delicious perogies,” explained Hess. “The recipe has been in the family for generations, with a few alterations, of course. Perfecting the perogie technique takes time.”

With different talents, these two ladies have led productive lives and continue to manage quite well each day. They both said they look forward each day to the activities offered to them. During the luncheon celebration, they graciously received many Happy Birthday wishes and were pleased to speak with visitors.

Amidst the gaiety, when asked how it felt to be 100 years old, Hess said with ease, “It doesn’t make any difference, it’s just like any other day.”


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