It was the 1940s, and Louise Guyette was working as a secretary in the war department of the U.S. Pentagon, entrusted with the maintenance and security of confidential documents. As the nation fell deeper into World War II, Guyette began handling more and more files that read, “Manhattan Project,” she recalled.
“Nobody knew quite what it was,” she said of the military’s secretive development of the atomic bomb.
Guyette’s early career with the Defense Department marks one of many accomplishments in her life of 104 years. None matter more to her than her five children, 16 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren. Guyette celebrated her 104th birthday earlier this month with her five kids and their spouses, because full family gatherings, the matriarch admitted, can get “a little crowded.”
Guyette’s life offers possible clues to those seeking to solve the mysteries of longevity. The topic garnered renewed interest this summer with the release of the Netflix series, “Life to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones,” a documentary exploring the geographic areas of the world with high numbers of centenarians. And it took on new urgency last year, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control released a report that the average life expectancy of Americans fell in 2021 to age 76, a drop of three years from 2019.
In South Burlington, Guyette is bucking that trend. She lives in the Harbor Village Senior Community, where her apartment is decorated from corner to corner with pictures of her many loved ones.
The atmosphere of Harbor Village, which provides residents with multiple wellness activities and emphasizes healthy habits, helps them live longer, said Tracey Shamberger, director of business development and communications for Age Well, a resource center for aging Vermonters. Guyette adds her own healthy habits by following a personal regimen of “exercise, connection to family, connection to others, and diet,” Shamberger said.
Even at 104, Guyette stays active. The retirement center holds social events and group exercises for its members, but Guyette prefers to ride solo —literally. She works out on her stationary bike.
Her general good health allows her to eschew taking prescription medications, she said. Unless she suffers from an injury or another temporary concern, Guyette refuses any drugs, following the advice of her daughter, Mary, who is a nurse.
“Her doctor likes to prescribe her such-and-such, and they’ll look at her and go, ‘You’re not going to take it, are you?’ And she’ll go, ‘Nope!’ ” Mary Guyette said.
Even helpful medications can have detrimental side effects for older adults, Schamberger conceded. For example, the risk of falling can increase with drugs that make someone drowsy.
“Medication does play into someone’s propensity to have an increased risk in falls,” she said. “Like medication confusion: There’s a medication you should be taking in the night, you take it in the morning, and then someone falls.”
Guyette credits her self-care and self-reliance with her successes in life. She grew up with a brother and three sisters in a strict Irish-Catholic household in Ellenwood, Kansas. From a young age, she set her sights on leaving home for a career. She was a proficient student. As a sophomore, she received the highest grade in Kansas on a statewide literature test.
Her aptitude led her to Charlotte, N.C., to attend business school. While there, she learned that a government recruiter from Washington, D.C., was offering placement tests to students, guaranteeing them jobs in the nation’s capital if they passed.
Guyette hadn’t even finished school and had her doubts about passing the exam, but prompted by friends, she decided to jump in “for the fun of it,” she said. “Next thing I knew, I was in Washington in the war department.”
Despite the tense work environment, Guyette said she loved the job, mostly because of the coworkers she befriended. The employees in her sector formed a bowling team, and she became close with those who shared her office space.
One of them, a man named Ralph Guyette, played for an opposing bowling club within the league. After a tournament, Ralph challenged Louise to a friendly wager: “If he beat me by a certain number of points in bowling, I’d have to buy him a beer.”
She accepted the offer, and Ralph won the bet. When he approached her to collect his winnings during the next bowling night, Louise realized she hadn’t received her paycheck that week. She couldn’t afford her end of the bargain.
“So, he bought the beer,” she recalled with a chuckle, adding that her husband has repeated the same joke ever since: “He’d like to say he bought the beer that night and he had been paying for it ever since.”
Ralph and Louise married in 1944. Ralph died in 2007 at age 90.
Louise Guyette considers the 1940s the best era of her life — working hard, doting on her husband and raising her children. Although she left her Pentagon job with her first pregnancy, the work didn’t end there. She simply transitioned from being a secretary to being a mother. Her measures of success shifted from getting raises to maintaining a stable and caring home, she said.
After the birth of their oldest son while still living in Washington, D.C., her husband’s work took them to Hartford, Conn., where she’d have two daughters. Later, another job moved them to Rutland, and they had their second son and third daughter.
Today, Guyette only wants to see her children and their children “be good people” and “make the right choices.” They don’t even have to stay close to her in Vermont, she said, but should venture on their own path, as she did.
After 104 years of an active life, Guyette has yet to decide if it’s time to settle down.
“I don’t think I’ve ever told myself that,” she said.
Jonah Frangiosa reported this story on assignment for the Vermont Community News Group. The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.
Categories: Vermonters Making A Difference