Bernice Madigan has celebrated birthdays riding into the sunset on a three-wheel motorcycle, touring the Berkshires in an old train car, and speeding down the highway in the back of a police cruiser. A Cheshire police officer once picked her up and said he was “arresting her for being the oldest person in town.”
But in her 115 years of living, the Cheshire woman had never spent a birthday in the hospital, as far as relatives could remember.
That was until Thursday, when the oldest person in Massachusetts spent the day at Berkshire Medical Center recovering from a fall earlier in the week. Madigan celebrated the momentous birthday surrounded by relatives and with her usual breakfast: four glazed Pop’ems doughnut holes, one with a candle stuck in it.
“She cried when everyone came through the door,” said her niece Elaine Daniels, 66. “She was just ecstatic about reaching 115, because that’s what she always wanted to do. That was her goal.”
Madigan is the fifth-oldest person in the world, according to the Gerontology Research Group, which verifies the oldest people in the world. The oldest is 116 and lives in Japan, according to the group’s data.
Madigan, who was born July 24, 1899, in West Springfield, tells friends and relatives that a simple formula has allowed her to live so long: No kids, no stress, and a spoonful of honey every day. Born when William McKinley was president, she graduated from Adams High School in 1918 and left Massachusetts for Washington.
She worked as a secretary for the Veterans Administration and the Treasury Department. She was married to her husband, Paul, for 50 years before he died in 1976.
‘She’s like the Energizer bunny that just keeps going and going. She has the setbacks and then just keeps going.’
When money became tight in 2007, she moved back to Massachusetts.
“She says, ‘I never turned around and looked back at the old house,’ ” Daniels said.
The state’s oldest woman begins her days with a plate of Eggo waffles, topped with sliced bananas and honey, doughnut holes (always four), and a cup of coffee. She maintains a steady TV diet of “Wheel of Fortune,” “COPS,” “Jeopardy!” and, more recently, “Shark Tank.” She spends afternoons reading and doing puzzles in the newspaper.
“She’s still sharp as a tack, which is pretty amazing at her age,” said her neighbor Josh Pisano, 34.
Pisano remembered painting an old barn one day when he heard music. It was Madigan playing old rhythms on a wooden upright piano not long after she moved in with her niece and caretaker.
“At 108 years old, she was still banging out the old popular tunes of the 1920s, 1930s,” he said.
Nowadays, friends and relatives gather for a birthday celebration every year on Rolling Acres Farm, where Madigan lives under the care of her niece. Daniels and her husband, John, treat Madigan to a different activity every year, hence, the police cruiser and firetruck. When she turned 113, she said, “Ahh, I can go through my teenage years again.”
“I said, ‘There will be no heavy drinking!’ ” Elaine Daniels remembered.
A younger friend of Madigan’s, 91-year-old Vita Busch, said she and Madigan often meet on the elder’s porch to reminisce about the past, though they come from generations a quarter-century apart.
“She’s a marvelous, wonderful lady, and I just hope she’s feeling better and will be coming home,” Busch said. “Compared to 115, I guess I’m young.”
Even in a hospital bed, surrounded by flowers and balloons on her birthday, Madigan had her eye on another goal. John Daniels, Elaine’s husband, said Bernice wants to become the oldest living person.
“She’s ready to make first,” he said. “She won’t care if she makes second.”
Elaine Daniels is confident her aunt can make the top of the list. Until recently, Madigan could walk the length of her driveway and back, with the aid of a walker. Relatives hope she will recover in time to make it to her birthday celebration on the farm this weekend.
“She’s like the Energizer bunny that just keeps going and going and going,” Elaine Daniels said. “She has the setbacks and then just keeps going.”