Doris Isenberger hadn’t been to a hospital since 1952. But after she broke her hip on her 100th birthday on July 14, 2011, it was time.
Doctors didn’t expect her to survive surgery due to her advanced age, but she defied their expectations and survived.
At 101 years old, with a keen mind and an easy laugh, Isenberger has lived most of her life in Long Beach, witnessing much that no longer exists and outliving most people.
The oldest of 13 children, Isenberger was born in Cuba, Illinois in 1911, moving from there to Glendale, Arizona (still a territory at the time), and then in 1921 moving to Long Beach, only going back for one year to live with her grandmother, said Sharon Fox, Isenberger’s only child. In 1928, she graduated from Poly High, said Fox, who lives with and takes care of her mother.
Growing up in Long Beach, Isenberger, whose maiden name is Caplinger, had a lot of fun.
“We did a lot of dancing, a lot of swimming,” she said. “We didn’t have much money, but we always had a good time.”
She remembers going to the Pike on New Year’s Eve and diving for coins that sailors used to throw into the water at the Plunge. In those days, you couldn’t take your own swimsuit to the Plunge (the workers supplied them) and women had to wear a robe down to the water before swimming, said Isenberger, who has one great-grandfather on her father’s side who fought for the Union in the Civil War and another on her mother’s side who fought for the Confederacy.
“There was a policeman on the beach, and he would measure if your swimsuit was too short,” she said. “We had to be very careful about bathing suits. It isn’t like today.”
Swimming wasn’t her only pastime. Isenberger said she also enjoyed going dancing at places like the Foothill Club in Signal Hill and went to many football and baseball games. She even went on a date with actor Buster Crabbe, “but he was too fresh for her” so they didn’t go out again, Fox said.
But it wasn’t all play. Isenberger said she “diapered” all of her younger siblings and also worked at a five-and-10-cent store in Long Beach– she landed the job after saying she was 16 when she was really only 13 years old. Later on, she worked at movie theaters, a department store, and, when her daughter was a teenager, a couple of auto dealers, one of which– Glenn E. Thomas– she retired from 36 years ago, Fox said.
In 1933, “she married a Wilson High, Long Beach City College-graduate– Franklin Isenberger,” Fox said. He passed away in 1974.
1933 was also the year of a major earthquake in Long Beach. Isenberger said she and her baby sister were in the kitchen with their mother, who was making bean soup, when it happened.
“When it started to shake, I remember my mother grabbed my sister and that bean stuff went all over,” Isenberger recalled. “After that earthquake, my dad would send us upstairs– we slept upstairs– because he said that was a redwood house, and it wasn’t going down, and it would shake all night long but we never had any trouble,” Isenberger said.
Isenberger’s brother still lives in that same house, Fox said. Isenberger’s father was a cement mason and aided in the cleanup afterward, Fox added.
During World War II, six of Isenberger’s seven brothers served, and one was a prisoner of war in Germany, Isenberger said. Her husband worked in Alaska, helping to build the Alcan Highway, Fox said.
Having lived in Long Beach for most of her life, Isenberger has seen many changes in the city.
“I think…our neighborhoods used to be all like one– all white, or all this or that,” Isenberger said. “Now I’m living in a mixed neighborhood, which…we never have any trouble, and I kind of appreciate that.”
Also, Long Beach is now much larger than before, Isenberger added.
As far as hobbies are concerned, Isenberger completes newspaper crossword puzzles in ink every day, and she reads about eight or nine books a month, Fox said.
Moreover, Isenberger also enjoys spending time with family and watching baseball, although she’s not happy with the Dodgers and Angels these days, she said.
So what’s the secret to her longevity?
“Well, I don’t take medicine,” Isenberger said. “For years I didn’t take anything but aspirin– I’ve never had to.”
Her mother lived to be 100 and her father 99, and her siblings have achieved advanced age as well, she said. But maybe it’s all the grapefruit– she eats one every day, Fox said.
These days, although she stopped driving at 97, Isenberger still does almost everything herself after spending 10 weeks rehabilitating after her hip surgery, Fox said. She has a caretaker help her once a week at the same house she’s lived in since 1955, and she gets by with a wheelchair and occasionally a walker, Fox added.
Yet even with some physical limits, Isenberger, who doesn’t wear glasses, has a mind that’s as sharp as ever.
“Everyone in our family remarks…how mentally alert she is– much more than what you would think,” Fox said. “Mentally, she’s like a 60-year-old, I would say.”
It’s this alertness, as well as her warmth, that inspires Isenberger’s hairdresser, Leah Farris, owner of Donato’s Hair Salon in Long Beach.
“It just makes you feel good when you’re around her,” Farris said. “She just makes you feel great.”
This good feeling people get when they’re around Isenberger stems from the most important lesson she’s learned in life– how to treat people.
“I think we have to be a little bit kinder to people,” Isenberger said. “There’s too much going on that’s against one another.”