COPAKE—It’s estimated only 1 person in every 6,000 will reach their 100th birthday, that’s 0.0173% of Americans based on information from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Yet, this rare occurrence will happen this week in the Columbia County Town of Copake, when Bernice Bussett becomes a centenarian January 31.
In a recent interview with The Columbia Paper at her home, Mrs. Bussett said she is looking forward to the big day. She and her little sister, Barbara Gobillot, who turned a mere 90-years-old January 27, are headed out for dinner at a local restaurant with family and friends.
The following day, Saturday, February 1, Mrs. Bussett will hold court at the Copake United Methodist Church House, during an open house to celebrate this momentous occasion from 1 to 4 p.m. Everyone is invited to stop by, have some refreshments and visit with the birthday girl.
“No gifts,” she said firmly, “I’m trying to get rid of stuff.”
She was born in Hudson in 1920. Her father, Albert Crane Bristol returned from serving during World War I in 1918 and married Gladys Van Hoesen, the daughter of a general practitioner, Dr. Louis Van Hoesen.
Mrs. Bussett remembers hearing her grandfather tell stories about delivering babies and receiving chickens as payment for his services.
Her father started his own business in Copake at a location along County Route 7A off Route 22, across the road from a Central New England railroad station. The depot still stands at the southern entrance to Copake and the former A.C. Bristol Lumber and Supply site is now High Voltage Inc.
Her grandfather and uncle—the Bristol Brothers—were in a similar business, selling lumber, feed and hay from a site along Route 9H in Claverack, where Hickey’s Store used to be.
Bernice, “Bee” for short, and her sister Barbara (the Bristol girls) grew up in Copake, residing in a house the family built on Main Street next door to what is now the Bank of Greene County.
Bee went to the Copake School from first to sixth grade, then attended classes in the Mount Washington Hotel, while the Roeliff Jansen Central School was built. When it opened in 1933, Bee was in the first freshman class. She studied there for two years before transferring to Emma Willard in 1935 and graduating in 1937.
She went on to Cornell University. Asked what she studied there, she quipped, “Men,” without skipping a beat. “I had a good time,” she chuckled. She spent two years at Cornell and then transferred to Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School in Boston for a year.
Her first car was a light blue 1937 Plymouth convertible with a rumble seat, an upholstered exterior seat, which folded down into the rear of the automobile.
Her sister and her friend Jean used to hide in the rumble seat and pop out suddenly as Bee sped along. “They used to drive me nuts,” Bee remembered. She drove for 60 years, but gave it up in 1997.
When Bee finished secretarial school she came back home and went to work at Bristol’s as a bookkeeper.
It was while working there that she became interested in Lawrence Brown. He was a second lieutenant in the Army infantry, she called him “Lieuy” for short.
“I fell in love with him before I ever met him,” she recalls after hearing all about him from Captain Clem Denning, who was in charge of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project in Boston Corners.
Capt. Denning gave her the lowdown on this fellow who was coming to help him out there. Their mission was to clear the Taconic Mountains of bugs. “They hand-picked the bugs,” said Bee.
Lt. Brown and Bee began dating in February and were married in July of that same year—1941. Their son, Larry Brown was born in 1943.
After the start of World War II, Bee moved into the then newly-built house, she still lives in today. Her husband “did infantry work” stateside at various bases. When the war was over Lt. Brown was still in the service.
“I got a ‘Dear John’ letter saying he didn’t love me anymore and we were divorced in 1946,” she said.
Bee was a stay-at-home mother until Larry was old enough to go to school, then she went back to her old job in the office at Bristol’s.
Her second husband, Claude Bussett, 12 years her senior, worked for Bristol’s as a truck driver. “I always knew him, I grew up with him,” she said.
They were married in 1948 and “he was a good stepfather to Larry.” Mr. Bussett died in 1996.
Bee had a busy community life. She joined the Copake Grange and was recently recognized as a 55-year member. She has been an 87-year member of the Copake United Methodist Church and is a member of the Roe Jan Historical Society, the Roe Jan Young At Hearters and the Hendrick Hudson Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Bee’s grandmother, Elizabeth Crane Bristol and her grandmother’s sister, Maytie Crane joined the DAR in the 1920s. Bee and her sister joined in 2014.
In 1963, Bee accidentally started the Methodist Church’s Bargain Shop, which is still in business today, selling used clothes, toys and household items at bargain prices to raise money to meet church expenses.
As a church member she decided to organize a rummage sale. The building next door to the church—Hedge’s store was vacant at the time, it had been sold, but the new owners—the Smethursts—were not yet ready to open. So they let Bee use that space for the sale.
So much stuff had been donated, that she continued to run the sale for a few more weeks. But when the new owners were ready to move into the store, the rummage sale had to find a new home and relocated to the Aircraft Warning Service Observation Tower, which used to stand behind the Town Hall. During World War II, volunteers were stationed in the tower to see if they could spot intruding enemy airplanes and report them to authorities.
The sale went on in the tower for several years before ending up in its current location, a storage shed behind the church house, which was once the Hedge’s home.
Bee worked there every Saturday for many years. She is now retired, but her sister is carrying on where she left off.
Bee also had another part-time job–collecting money for tickets at the local movie theater.
She recalls one Saturday morning, being at the Bristol’s office and accepting a payment from a woman customer. Later that afternoon, she was working at the Bargain Shop when the same woman came in and paid Bee for a purchase there. That evening, Bee was working in the box office at the theater, when the same woman came to buy a ticket. “I’ll never forget the expression on her face when she saw me with my hand out for a third time that day,” said Bee.
At the movie theater, Bee worked for Edward McIntyre, the man who owned the theater and spearheaded the movement to build the Copake Memorial Clock in the hamlet center.
Bee, recalls that when Mr. McIntyre celebrated his 100th birthday in Florida, he enjoyed one too many Black Russians, passed out and missed the whole party, including the cake.
She doesn’t intend to do that, “when you’re 100 you can’t get in too much trouble,” but admits “I’ll have a drink once in a while.” She prefers a cosmopolitan.
Her secrets for longevity—well, she tries to eat one balanced meal per day with meat, potatoes and vegetables. Her favorite food is lobster, but she doesn’t get to eat it very often.
As a general rule she does not drink water. Bee said her mother did not drink it hardly at all and she just doesn’t like the taste.
Her mother lived to be 100, her mother’s father lived to be 98, all her aunts on her mother’s side lived to be in their 90s.
When her father died at age 88, her mother lamented, “He died so young.”
Bee and her sister have taken 11 cruises over the years—most to tropical places like the Virgin Islands, Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and her favorite Aruba. Each offered a new adventure some involving hot tubs, and another involving getting stuck in a traffic jam of people trying to get to the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.
She does not own a computer and says the most technologically advanced device she has is a microwave oven. “I’m not one for machines.”
Her family history of longevity has helped her reach this milestone, “good genes,” she says, adding that she likes to laugh and tries to joke around especially when things are boring. “I was a giggler as a child. Now I try to find something funny to loosen up the bunch.”
All in all, Bee says she thinks she’s led a “pretty dull life” but notes, “maybe that’s why it’s lasted so long.”
To contact Diane Valden email