BETHLEHEM, Pa. — In her 105 years, Gertrude Kunsman has seen a lot.
She remembers Prohibition —- somewhat fondly, in fact. She and her husband Earl Kunsman made moonshine in their bathtub and delivered it nightly in a Model T Ford.
Kunsman also was witness to countless major milestones, such as not one but two World Wars. That was so long ago though, she conceded this week, that it’s hard to recall very much.
Kunsman has seen the evolution of Bethlehem. As a lifelong resident, she and Earl used to go on dates at the theater on Broad Street. Her son worked for the Steel as an accountant. She saw its rise, then fall. So much has changed, she said.
But those weren’t the life experiences Kunsman was drawing from as she quieted the crowd gathered on the porch of the Moravian King’s Daughters Home in Bethlehem on Friday to celebrate her 105th birthday.
“Shhh,” cooed the nurses as they hushed the gaggle of family and longtime friends who filled every chair and perch. “Gertrude wants to say something.”
“I think it was very nice and thoughtful of all of you to come to this affair,” Kunsman said slowly, as the group craned their necks to hear.
“It would be nice of the persons that don’t do anything, if they would help the hospital,” Kunsman continued. “I spent many hours with the Red Cross. If anyone here could do any kind of help, do it.”
Kunsman’s audience was silenced for a moment, surprised by the sudden public service announcement. But then the applause began, and her family members smiled. That was the “Gertie” they know.
For decades, Kunsman had drilled into her family the importance of a life of service. Volunteering was an early passion that began with the local Red Cross as a driver. Clad in a military-style uniform with a cap draped over her forehead, Kunsman drove locals, including many veterans and steelworkers, to regional hospitals and an eye clinic in Philadelphia. She also served on the board of the local Red Cross.
Kunsman also was a leader of the local and state Elks Club, where she continued her volunteering efforts, helping children with disabilities.
Kunsman didn’t just donate her own time, said daughter Shirley Bilheimer — she expected her children and grandchildren to help. (These days she has an army of helpers with four grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.) Kunsman taught Bilheimer to drive at age 14 on their family property, and before long she was driving for the Red Cross alongside her mother.
“She’d put on her uniform and we’d say ‘Here comes the general,'” Bilheimer said, laughing.
On Friday, the general was smaller in stature, but still very much in charge. Clad in pink pants with a white flower pinned to her lapel, she held court on the porch. Even the Bethlehem police came to her.
Officer Eric Waldeck brought a Bethlehem Mounted Police horse to pay Kunsman a visit, a special treat arranged by staff at the home for a woman who once kept two horses at her home.
“That’s a horse,” Kunsman announced to the crowd as she was led to pet the towering animal. As friends and family chatted with officers, Kunsman shuffled off, leaving staff to chase after her with the oxygen tube she had left behind.
“She’s a little feisty sometimes,” said Debbie Bauder, an employee with the home. “When she has her mind made up that she wants to go, she goes.”
For those hoping to be as youthful as Kunsman at age 105, she has no tips or advice to offer. There are no secrets to her longevity, she said. No magic foods, no secret elixirs. A video of photos made and narrated by her family that was played during the party joked that Kunsman set a healthy example by quitting smoking at age 86.
“What do you always say?” son Earl Kunsman Jr. prompted his mother. “If the devil doesn’t want ya, and the Lord isn’t ready for ya?”
“I didn’t think I’d live this long,” Kunsman told her birthday guests as they wrapped up her party on the porch and retreated inside for cake and ice cream.
“Gertrude, we’ll be here 10 years from now,” a staff member said, “celebrating again.”
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com