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Kin say N.H. woman seized the day - all 41,932 of them

At 114, Mary Ray was oldest person in the US

Mary Josephine Ray, shown celebrating her 111th birthday in May 2006, died Sunday. She was a week younger than the oldest person in the world, Kama Chinen of Japan. Mary Josephine Ray, shown celebrating her 111th birthday in May 2006, died Sunday. She was a week younger than the oldest person in the world, Kama Chinen of Japan. (Steve Hooper/ Keene Sentinel File via AP)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / March 9, 2010

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Almost until the end, Mary Josephine Ray would take song requests, crooning traditional Acadian tunes from her childhood and Tin Pan Alley standards. From her New Hampshire nursing home, she played cribbage with a youthful zeal, tallying every point herself. At 106, she shrugged off hip replacement surgery like she had skinned her knee.

She said the rosary, watched her soaps, and cheered on her beloved Red Sox. Hershey’s Kisses were always close at hand. Sometimes, so was a dainty snifter of port.

Ray, who died in her sleep Sunday at the age of 114, had been widely acknowledged as the oldest person in the United States and the second-oldest person in the world. As she climbed the ranks of the world’s most aged, she would say she owed her longevity to God alone. But another reason, her family believes, was that she welcomed each day with gratitude and wonder.

“She always lived in the present, every day,’’ said her granddaughter, Kathy Ray. “She took each day as it came. She lived in the moment and never gave a thought to dying.’’

Mary Josephine Ray, a mother of two children who lived most of her life in Maine, also reveled in the attention that came with her advancing age. She loved her birthdays, which reunited far-flung family and featured a barbershop group that would serenade her a cappella. Now and then she would get letters from strangers who wanted to meet her or an autograph request.

Ray was just a few days younger than the oldest person in the world, Kama Chinen of Japan, who is 114 years and 303 days. There are now 75 people aged 110 or older in the world (known as supercentenarians), according to the Gerontology Research Group in Los Angeles. All but three are women.

Neva Morris, of Ames, Iowa, is now the country’s oldest resident at 114 years and 218 days old. Ray lived to 114 years, 294 days.

Ray was taking part in the New England Centenarian Study at Boston Medical Center, the world’s largest study of the possible reasons behind centenarians’ longevity. Thomas Perls, a geriatrics professor who directs the study, said Ray’s mental abilities remained remarkably strong in her final years.

“She was amazing,’’ he said. “Her long-term memory was very good.’’

While centenarians have become relatively common in the United States, with 74,000 now and a projected 600,000 by midcentury, supercentenarians like Ray remain incredibly scarce. Just 1 in 7 million people live to 110, Perls said. They are considered medical marvels who seem almost impervious to the normal aging process.

“They markedly delay the onset of any age-related diseases,’’ he said. “To get to 110, there’s a really strong genetic component.’’

In Ray’s case, her powerful genes seemed to bestow remarkable vitality.

In 2003, she attended her first game at Fenway Park and was invited to lead the crowd in a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.’’

“She really belted it out,’’ Kathy Ray recalled with a chuckle. “She loved all the attention. Just loved it. And nothing fazed her.’’

The Red Sox won that day, paced by excellent pitching from Pedro Martinez and a home run by Nomar Garciaparra, Mary Josephine’s favorite player. Thrilled by the day’s events, she rode a rush of adrenaline the entire trip back to New Hampshire.

“It was a long day, and everyone was exhausted,’’ recalled Steven Wilson, activity director at Maplewood Nursing Home in Westmoreland. “But she sang all the way home. She said ‘That was the best day of my life.’ She was a star that day.’’

Ray was a resolute optimist, Wilson said, who had a wonderful sense of humor and loved the little things.

“She would always joke and laugh and smile,’’ he said. “She would break into song, recite poetry, at the drop of the hat. The staff got very attached to her, and we are all going to miss her a great deal.’’

Ray had been feeling poorly the past two weeks, and some days, for the first time anyone could remember, did not get out of bed. But when nurses reminded her one morning that a student was coming to interview her, her spirits brightened. She got dressed and into her wheelchair and answered all his questions, even summoning the strength for an old song or two.

Ray had managed to lead a robust life long after relatives assumed she would need care. After her husband died, she moved to Florida and lived on her own for years. Two decades later, well past 100, she only reluctantly agreed to a nursing home.

“She asked if there were any men there,’’ Kathy Ray said. “That seemed to help.’’

When Ray broke her hip a few years later, relatives assumed her rehabilitation would be long and arduous.

“That night she was sitting up in her hospital bed, with the remote in her hand,’’ Kathy Ray said. “We asked what she was doing, and she said ‘What do you think I’m doing? I’m waiting for ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ ’’

Ray’s sight and hearing were failing in recent years, forcing her family to write questions in large letters on a white board. But her overall health remained strong, and her mind remained nimble.

“If you shook her hand she would pull you in close,’’ Ray said. “She was strong. And her mind was sharp as a tack.’’

Yet despite an impressive memory, Mary Josephine Ray rarely spoke of the past. It was too long ago, she would quip.

Born Mary Arsenault in Prince Edward Island in 1895, she moved to Maine at age 3. Her father died when she was 7, and at 15, when her mother died, she was on her own. In an interview in August with The Union Leader in Manchester, N.H., Kathy Ray said her grandmother cherished her youthful independence.

“There was no one around to really tell me what was right or what was wrong or tell me what to do anymore,’’ she told the paper. “And that was alright with me.’’

She found work as a housekeeper and store clerk, her granddaughter said. She had stopped attending school at a young age to help care for her six siblings but learned on her own.

“She was a self-taught woman,’’ Ray said.

In 1923, she married Walter Ray, and they lived in Maine until his death in 1967. She moved to Florida, where they had vacationed, before returning to New England a few years later.

She leaves two sons, Robert B. Ray of Pensacola, Fla., and Donald K. Ray of Westmoreland; eight grandchildren, 13 great grandchildren, five great-great grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be held Thursday in Madison, Maine.