Fred Sheill, 100, drives up to his daylily fields in Au Gres, Mich. (pop. 1,028), and honks the horn three times to summon his helpers. Within minutes, eight tame geese waddle to his pickup truck.
Sheill tears off bits of hotdog bun and feeds them. "They eat the weeds and bugs and fertilize the lilies," he says with pride about his feathered workers.
The gaggle of geese has plenty to eat on the 10-acre farm where Sheill, nicknamed the "Daylily King," grows 500,000 daylilies in a spectrum of colors from yellow and orange to pink and lavender.
Sheill is among an estimated 96,000 centenarians in the United States, up from 37,000 in 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And though some have been working since Herbert Hoover was president, they don't plan to retire.
"I can't get to the farm early enough," Sheill says. "I promise my customers that I'll be there from 10 until 5, but I'm usually there by 7 or 8."
Sheill planted his first wild tiger lilies at age 12 and discovered that the plants double each year. "I said, 'Well, that's a 100 percent profit, so I'm going to be a nurseryman.'"
The budding nurseryman paid his tuition to Michigan State University in East Lansing (pop. 46,525) from 1927 to 1931 by selling honey from his 200 beehives, as well as cupcakes, candy bars and cookies made with the honey. He couldn't afford to complete his degree during the Great Depression, but the university granted him an honorary forestry degree in January, praising his continued work at age 100.
On a typical summer day, Sheill spends several hours on his tractor, moving composted grass clippings and leaves to his flowerbeds. He also visits with customers who arrive with sacks and shovels to dig their own flowers$5 for a handful and $8 for a shovelful. Until five years ago, he dug all of the flowers himself and shipped them across the nation.
"It was hard work, but then again it wasn't, because I liked it," he says.
Sheill and his late wife, Gladys, owned a nursery in Southfield, Mich. (pop. 78,296), from 1933 to 1965. After Gladys died in 1985, Sheill moved to Au Gres and planted his daylily farm. Each April, he hits the road and leaves 10,000 brochures advertising his flowers at restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses across the state.
"I'm always making plans for next year," Sheill says.
Love of life
Working centenarians such as Sheill "show us what's possible," says Lynn Peters Adler, 63, who founded the National Centenarian Awareness Project in 1989 in Phoenix.
"So many centenarians today are closer to the work force than the rocking chair," she says. "I can name a dozen right off the top of my head who would be working if they had the opportunity."
Many factors determine lifespan, but Adler sees common traits among the hundreds of centenarians that she's interviewed: a positive attitude, a strong religious or spiritual belief, personal courage and the ability to enjoy the roller coaster of life.
"Number one is they have a love of life, which includes a sense of humor," she says.
Finding the lighter side of life is a habit of attorney Jack Borden, 101, of Weatherford, Texas (pop. 26,686). Alongside 70 years of awards, including his 1936 law degree from the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, is a collection of clever quotations.
One plaque reads: "Diplomacy: The ability to let someone else have your way."
"I've been working on that for 100 years," Borden says with a laugh.
Fueled by a regular breakfast of biscuits and gravy with ham or sausage, Borden works a 40-hour week specializing in real estate law and wills, and prides himself on serving a fifth generation of clients.
Todd Rone, 45, of Weatherford, says his great-great-grandfather used Borden's services, and six years ago he met Borden when he accompanied his grandfather to make power-of-attorney arrangements.
"Mr. Borden can recount facts from years ago without consulting anything," Rone says. "He's got a memory like no man I've ever met."
Named America's Outstanding Oldest Worker in August by Experience Works, a national job-training organization for elders, Borden remains eager to get to the office on Monday mornings.
"Coming down here and being with people keeps me alive," says Borden, whose wife, Edith, died three years ago. "I'll keep working and someday, they'll find me here with my head on the desk."
Employed for eight decades
Mingling with people delights centenarians Lucy Villani and Sally Gordon, who each began working with the public 80 years ago when women wore flapper dresses and drove Model T Fords.
"Good morning, welcome to Wal-Mart," says Villani, 100, as she greets shoppers in Trinidad, Colo. (pop. 9,078). "Would you like a cart?"
For 10 years, Villani has worked at Wal-Mart, continuing a tradition in retail sales that began in 1928 with a $6-a-week job at Kress five and dime store in Denver. Today, she also works a second job at her daughter's shop, Francesca's Antiques in Trinidad.
"I like people and I like to work because it keeps me from worrying about things," says Villani, who drives a car, maintains her home and visits the library every week to stock up on books. She doesn't follow any dietary restrictions, and her favorite food is a box of Russell Stover chocolates.
Francesca Villani, 64, marvels at her active mother. "A doctor told her when she was 85 that she was too old to have a pacemaker, so when she was 94, she finally had one," Francesca says.
In Lincoln, Neb., Sally Gordon's smile greets legislators and lobbyists at the state Capitol, which she watched being built when she was 18, and where she's worked 25 years as an assistant sergeant-at-arms.
"I love people," says Gordon, 100, who previously worked as a secretary for three Nebraska governors. "I think we should enjoy one another and be helpful."
When the Legislature is in session, she walks seven blocks to the Capitol building, waving and speaking to people, and noticing even the smallest creatures along the way.
"I saw a robin slide down a banister," she says in an enthusiastic voice. "I appreciate nature and what God has given us. It's a beautiful world."