LOS ANGELES – Although she liked her bacon crispy and her chicken fried, she never drank, smoked or fooled around, Gertrude Baines once said, describing a life that lasted an astonishing 115 years and earned her the title of oldest person on the planet.
It was a title Baines quietly relinquished Friday when she died in her sleep at Western Convalescent Hospital, her home since she gave up living alone at age 107 after breaking a hip.
She likely suffered a heart attack, said her longtime physician, Dr. Charles Witt, although an autopsy was scheduled to determine the exact cause of death.
“I saw her two days ago, and she was just doing fine,” Witt told The Associated Press on Friday. “She was in excellent shape. She was mentally alert. She smiled frequently.”
Baines was born in Shellman, Ga., on April 6, 1894, when Grover Cleveland was in the White House, radio communication was just being developed and television was still more than a half-century from becoming a ubiquitous household presence.
She was 4 years old when the Spanish-American War broke out and 9 when the first World Series was played. She had already reached middle age by the time the U.S. entered World War II in 1941.
Throughout it all, Baines said last year, it was a life she thoroughly enjoyed.
“I’m glad I’m here. I don’t care if I live a hundred more,” she said with a hearty laugh after casting her vote for Barack Obama for president. “I enjoy nothing but eating and sleeping.”
Her vote for Obama, she added, had helped fulfill a lifelong dream of seeing a black man elected president.
“We all the same, only our skin is dark and theirs is white,” said Baines, who was black.
The centenarian, who worked as a maid at Ohio State University dormitories until her retirement, had outlived all of her family members. Her only daughter died of typhoid at age 18.
In her final years, she passed her days watching her favorite TV program, “The Jerry Springer Show,” and consuming her favorite foods: bacon, fried chicken and ice cream. She complained often, however, that the bacon served to her was too soft.
“Two days ago, when I saw her, she was talking about the fact that the bacon wasn’t crisp enough, that it was soggy,” Witt said.
She became the world’s oldest person in January when Maria de Jesus died in Portugal at 115.
The title brought with it a spotlight of attention, and Baines was asked frequently about the secret to a long life. She shrugged off such questions, telling people to ask God instead.
“She told me that she owes her longevity to the Lord, that she never did drink, she never did smoke and she never did fool around,” Witt said at a party marking her 115th birthday.
At the party, Baines sat quietly, paying little attention as nursing home staffers and residents sang “Happy Birthday” and presented congratulatory notices from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others. But she laughed when told the Los Angeles Dodgers had given her a cooler filled with hot dogs.
With Baines’ death, 114-year-old Kama Chinen of Japan becomes the world’s oldest person, said Dr. L. Stephen Coles of the Gerontology Research Group, which tracks claims of extreme old age. Chinen was born May 10, 1895.
The oldest person who ever lived, Coles said, was Jeanne-Louise Calment, who was 122 when she died Aug. 4, 1997, in Arles, France.