WYOMISSING, Pa. — Margaret Dilullo made her way down the impromptu red carpet of tissue paper, one slow, deliberate step at a time. She held onto a cane with her right hand, a caregiver with her left.
Dilullo’s smile lit up the place — a trademark of this God-fearing, beer-drinking, positive-preaching woman who’s lived longer than nearly everyone, everywhere.
In a tiara and matching sash, with her hair done just so, she surveyed the packed lobby of her Country Meadows Retirement Community on Dec. 13.
Everyone began to clap. This was her 107th birthday, after all.
“Yeah, I can still walk,” she zinged with a grin.
She settled into her chair. Someone handed her a bouquet of roses and a can of Yuengling.
Dilullo lists her long-life secrets this way: faith in God, good genes and a Yuengling lager every day.
“I’ll tell you who did it,” she said of her longevity, voice rising. “The man upstairs. Everybody, thank God. That’s your hero. Be sure to do that. I do that every day.”
She took a swig.
“And he doesn’t care if you drink a beer.”
The place broke up.
The party was on.
Raising a family in the Great Depression
Dilullo was born in 1914, a couple years after the Titanic sank, a few months after the start of World War I. She worked in a grocery store during Prohibition and began raising a family in the Great Depression.
Her first marriage lasted nearly 50 years, her second one about 20. She’s long outlived both spouses.
Even at 106, she lived on her own, in a second-floor apartment with steep steps.
She learned about hard work early on. Dilullo was just 8 when her mother, too restless and carefree, left their family. To help her overwhelmed father, she fed, bathed and cared for her four younger brothers as best she could.
A year or so later, she was sent to live with relatives in Lancaster County. As soon as her school day ended, she waited on customers in the family grocery store. When worked slowed there, she was ordered to do farm chores. She considered herself a full-time worker by 12.
She escaped by marrying immediately after high school. The Great Depression was still suffocating and she and first husband, Jesse James Hirneisen, had little money, even less food and no heat in the house.
The story goes that they subsisted on onions for a time and made a tent of bed covers to provide warmth when changing their daughter’s diapers.
Eventually, her husband found wood working jobs and Margaret landed with an insurance company. She steadily rose to managing and supervising, becoming the main earner in the family.
But her big break, as she still sees it, was finding the true “love of her life” after her first husband died. She knew almost as soon as they met that she wanted to marry a salesman named George Dilullo, an outgoing, happy soul like her.
So what better fun than to tie the knot in a double ceremony in Florida with her daughter? Margaret was 67.
“She had a lot of things to overcome, and she had the strength and toughness to handle it,” said daughter, Jackie Kendall, full of energy and adrenaline, too, at nearly 89. “She would never break down from calamity. She just handled it. ‘This is what we have to do, so do it.'”
A Yuengling lager each day
Most of Dilullo’s days passed with a smile, a few laughs and eventually an evening beer.
She remembers her mother sending her to the corner bar to fill up a growler with whatever was available, and there always was beer in the fridge. It eventually became her daily tradition to sip with friends and relax.
Somehow, it became Yuengling and nothing else.
“It has a tang to it. I don’t know, it’s not sour, but it’s a tang that I like,” she said. “And it doesn’t make you drunk, it’s satisfying.”
She paused for a moment, then piped: “We always drink Yuengling. And I urge you to do the same!”
The party crowd laughed at her salesmanship. They knew. When Yuengling, known as America’s oldest brewery, learned of her daily devotion last fall, they rolled out a truck on the hour commute to Reading to make a 20-case delivery in her honor.
She became a bit of a media darling as TV and radio stations and Facebook groups spread the story.
She adored the attention then as she does now in Country Meadows. The oldest resident in the care facility? She’s almost certainly the oldest in the entire Reading area.
She treasures her good fortune. She talked of overcoming colon cancer surgery at 92 without so much as a radiation or chemotherapy treatment. Her biggest issues are not being able to hear out of her left ear and feeling unsteady without a cane or walker in the halls.
“I have no pains and aches like old people have,” she said. “So what should I say? I’d guess I say I feel 90.”
The stories went on and on that December afternoon, from her days as an amateur magician to a great-grandfather small-game hunting into his 90s.
She and her fellow residents ate cake and ice cream and watched a long-ago TV tape of Margaret singing in a local musical (back in her mid-80s).
“Yeah, I like the attention a little bit because I didn’t have so much of it in my life. Now, as I walk up and down the aisles here everybody knows me. ‘Hi, Margaret!’ I like to hear that.”
She smiled one more time, her eyes sparkling.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’m working on next year.”
Follow Frank Bodani on Twitter @YDRPennState.