The oldest living person in America, Omahan Thelma Sutcliffe, will quietly mark her 115th birthday Friday.
And that’s the way she wants it.
Sutcliffe, who was born Oct. 1, 1906, doesn’t like anyone to make a fuss over her. She will get up, as she always does, at 5 a.m. With the help of staff members at Brighton Gardens near 93rd Street and Western Avenue, she will get into one of her many colorful outfits.
“She pays attention to her appearance,” said a longtime friend, Luella “Lou” Mason of Omaha. “There’s no sitting around in bedclothes. Thelma wants to be dressed every day — very particular about her looks.”
Her birthday party will be attended only by Brighton Gardens staff members because the facility is on lockdown due to positive COVID-19 tests. Barring any further setbacks, Mason will be able to see her friend again on Oct. 9.
Sutcliffe was born in Benson, Nebraska (before it became part of Omaha) to August and Maude (née Adams) Liesche, who owned a farm. At the age of 17, she married Bill Sutcliffe, who worked for the U.S. Postal Service.
He loved to golf, and the couple enjoyed traveling, Mason said. Sutcliffe has called her wedding day the happiest day of her life, Mason said, and said her husband was “her best friend.”
Bill Sutcliffe died in the early 1970s.
The Gerontology Research Group said Sutcliffe became the nation’s oldest living person on April 17 when Hester Ford, a 115-year-old woman, died in North Carolina. The second-oldest American is Maria Branas Morera, who was born in California on March 4, 1907, but now lives in Spain.
The oldest person in the world is 118-year-old Kane Tanaka of Japan, who was born Jan. 2, 1903.
Various sources say Sutcliffe is the sixth-oldest person in the world, but Mason said her friend shows no interest in that distinction.
“She has never wanted any notoriety or attention,” Mason said. “I talked with her a couple of weeks ago about this birthday and she told me, ‘We don’t need to talk about that.’”
Mason, who is 86, usually visits her friend at least once a week for lunch in Brighton Gardens’ dining room. She helps Sutcliffe, who is hard of hearing and nearly blind, select outfits to wear.
“Her mind is still sharp, and she’s doing fine,” said Mason, who has power of attorney for Sutcliffe. “She looks forward to me coming and visiting. Then we go downstairs for lunch and she eats like a trouper, especially ice cream.”
Mason and Sutcliffe became friends when they both lived at the Elmwood Tower near 52nd and Leavenworth Streets. The friendship continued when Sutcliffe moved into Brighton Gardens in 2017.
“She asks about people (at Elmwood Tower) and we talk about how they’re doing and things like grocery shopping.”
The two friends sometimes have differing opinions, Mason said, but that just shows Sutcliffe remains her own woman.
“She absolutely knows what she wants, and if Thelma says no, I don’t know who could change her mind,” Mason said. “Maybe I can sometimes, but it’s really difficult.”
Until visitors are allowed back in the dining room, Sutcliffe takes all her meals in her room. She has survived two bouts of cancer and chooses not to worry about things that she can’t control.
“I don’t believe in worrying at all,” Sutcliffe has told her friend. “What good does it do? That’s how you live to be my age.”