Retired art teacher and Venice resident Genevieve Steffen learned how to fly a plane before she could drive a car.
VENICE -- When Genevieve Steffen was born in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson was working to bring American troops home from World War I.
Another worldwide health war was raging as the "Spanish flu," the 1918 pandemic caused by the H1N1 virus, claimed the lives of 50 million people, including 650,000 in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 500 million people, a third of the world’s population, became infected with the virus.
Steffen came down with the virus when she was 8 months old. Her mother also contracted H1N1 in Buffalo, New York, where she was born. Family lore has it that her father gave both her and her mother cherry wine to loosen the grip of the virus, which was particularly deadly for young children.
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"It was quite serious," Steffen said in an interview at her home in Venice. "My mother said when she awoke from the illness, she did not recognize me right away even though we were both sick at the same time. She looked at me and said, ‘This can’t be my baby.’ I guess I had spots all over my face. Most babies did not live at that time."
Steffen made a slow but full recovery from the illness, as did her mother. Her father’s medicinal intervention may or may not have been a factor.
"It was a terrible thing," she said of the virus, adding of the cherry wine: "Maybe it helped. How do we know? We don’t know. Luckily, I had no repercussions, no scars or speech difficulty or anything."
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Steffen and her two sisters also fell victim to other childhood illnesses that have since been eradicated by vaccines. Her older sister Marjorie came down with tuberculosis. On the advice of doctors, her father moved the family to more rural East Aurora, New York, about 25 miles away from the industrial town of Buffalo.
Marjorie lived in a sanitarium for four years, and the family would visit her every day until she recovered from TB. Steffen recalls seeing a mother across the street trying to treat her young son who also had TB by placing him on a porch railing and rubbing medication on his chest.
Steffen and her youngest sister, Dorothy, also contracted whooping cough.
"That was nice in that we could go outside; we just couldn’t go to school. We couldn’t go with other kids, with other people because it was catching," she said. "We thought that was fun to be able to go outside, and we didn’t feel too bad. We were quite young."
Witness to history
Steffen learned to fly a plane before she learned how to drive a car. Her father-in-law taught her how to fly before World War II.
"At that time, that was just before the war had begun. You could tell it was coming on," Steffen said. "There was only one girl to eight boys that took up the training. That was a thrill. You get to be up there all by yourself, nothing down there but the land. That was one of the thrills of my life."
Her husband, Gene, served in WWII in the Army Air Forces, which later became the U.S. Air Force. They lived in East Aurora where she taught art in public schools and he taught drafting at Buffalo State University. He then mastered the new medium of television, becoming the college’s director of communications.
"He was the youngest teacher there, and then when he left, he was the oldest in the whole college system," their youngest daughter Maria Steffen said in a phone interview from her home in California.
Genevieve Steffen, who goes by Gen, served as the longtime curator of the Elbert Hubbard Museum in East Aurora. The walls of her Venice home are covered in artwork. She still tends to a doll collection that she treasures.
After retiring, the Steffens were snowbirds, visiting their winter home in Englewood. They built their home in Venice about 20 years ago and continued to travel back and forth to the Buffalo area. Gene died at age 88 in 2007. Gen would fly with her cat Olivia Vixen, aka Vicky, back to Buffalo until about three years ago.
Gen Steffen said she’s not sure how or why she’s led such a long, mostly healthy life or what the secret is to her longevity.
"I do not know. You tell me," she said.
Her father taught her how to swim when she was a young girl. She walked back and forth to school, played tennis and rode her bike. Exercise always was an essential part of her life.
She and Gene used to travel all over New York and Florida to dance. She’s never been heavy, and loves to eat vegetables like cauliflower, said a longtime aide who stays with her.
"She and my dad did square dancing, round dancing, ballroom dancing," Maria said. "Swimming has always been her passion."
At age 88, Genevieve had emergency open-heart surgery to repair a valve. When she was in the hospital with complications and hemorrhaging afterward, she could feel herself slipping away.
"The next morning, she woke and looked right at me and asked, ‘Am I alive?’" daughter Maria wrote in an email. "She was almost gleeful that she was alive. She has always appreciated life and its wonders, nature, family history and art. She has never stopped learning."
Niece Paula Maute visited Genevieve in Venice about three months after that surgery. Doctors had cleared her to swim, and Maute and her young daughter went with her to a Venice beach. The two adults swam out in the Gulf of Mexico, with Maute sticking close by to keep an eye on her "frail" aunt.
When Gen kept swimming farther and farther offshore, Maute went with her until she could barely see her young daughter Ruby on the beach.
"I could tell she (Ruby) was worried I’d disappear," she wrote in an email. "Gen was swimming a hearty breaststroke and enjoying the sun. I was torn between watching out for my aunt and my daughter back on the beach, so I tried to coax Gen back to shore. She told me she was fine swimming alone. … She loves the water."
Her devotion to exercise and a healthy diet have no doubt contributed to her longevity, her son Michael said. She followed the whole grain, vegetable-intense Cornell diet and passed along those healthy habits to her three children, Michael, Maria and Carol Friday. She has four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, with another due in August.
"She loved to swim, and she always was mentally engaged. She always had a book going," Michael said in an interview from his California home.
Health issues like poor eyesight from macular degeneration and difficulty hearing have affected her in recent years, but she maintains a zest for life.
"What amazes me still about her is that even though she’s basically blind and really limited in her mobility, she seems to enjoy life. She enjoys a good joke," Michael said. "She’s not really sour about anything."
He was planning a visit, and he knows how to make his mom smile.
"She has a certain verve for life. She really enjoys music," he said. "Right now, if I want to make her feel really good I would play some jazz from the late ’30s and early ’40s, dance music, a Benny Goodman kind of thing."
Vicki Dean is a freelance writer based in Venice.