Las Vegas woman credits chicken soup for her long and healthy life

Josephine Keneman was born on a farm, married the wrong guy at 17, raised two sons alone during the Great Depression, married the right guy a few years later, watched that guy go away during World War II, helped build torpedoes for the Navy, gave birth to two more sons, moved around the country, learned to crochet, moved to Las Vegas in her 80s, and watched her husband of 71 years fade away.

That’s just in the first 99 years.

She turns 100 today, ready for more.

What’s her secret?

Chicken soup.

“Evidently, I’m still living,” she said the other day, comfortably seated in her northwest Las Vegas home, where she lives by herself. “My doctors all tell me, ‘Do what you’re doing because we can’t find anything wrong with you.’

“I eat a lot of chicken soup” she said. “We were farm people, so what do you think we ate? Chicken soup.”

Keneman still gets around her house by herself. She makes her own homemade soup. She has a driver’s license, but she doesn’t drive.

She needs new hearing aids – you have to talk really loud around her – but her son said she doesn’t want new ones because she isn’t sure she’d get her money’s worth.

“I’m lucky to have her as a mother,” said Bill Keneman, 67, the youngest of her four sons.

Living to 100 is still rare, though not as rare as it used to be.

The U.S. Census Bureau put out a report last month detailing the over-100 population of the country, which stood at 54,364 in 2010, the latest census. That’s about 1.73 for every 10,000 people, up from 1.42 for every 10,000 people in 1980.

California had the most, nearly 6,000, followed by Florida. North Dakota had the highest proportion of those over 100, still only 0.033 percent of the population.

Only Alaska and Utah had a smaller portion of the population over 100 than Nevada, where there were just 203 people that age, a paltry 0.0075 percent.

The vast majority of the centenarians nationwide were white and women.

Like Josephine Keneman.

She is the daughter of Polish immigrants, Wallenty and Katarzyna, as listed on her birth certificate.

She was raised on a farm in Massachusetts, grew up milking cows and fetching eggs.

She stopped going to school after the eighth grade because the high school was too far away. “You can’t walk eight miles to school every day,” she said.

She married at 17 – that was in 1930, mind you – and quickly had two kids. But the guy was a drunk, she said, so she left.

She spent the Great Depression raising her boys and waitressing in Newport, R.I, where there were lots of Navy sailors.

She happened to run into one of them, Harry Keneman, who was called “Kenny” by his Navy buddies because he had a friend who was also named Harry. Kenny is a play on Keneman’s last name.

She called him Kenny for the next 71 years, until he died at age 92 in December 2011.

Harry was about to get out of the Navy in 1941. He was on his way back home, in fact, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

He did not leave the Navy.

The torpedo factory in Newport was gearing up for the war effort, like the rest of the country. The factory needed 1,500 women to help build the bombs.

Josephine joined the “Rosy the Riveter” campaign, helping make the detonators for the torpedoes. She kept her waitress job, too. Soon, she was making twice as much money as her husband.

She still laughs about that.

“I was lucky I got in on it,” she said.

When the war was over, Harry stayed in the Navy. Overall, he was in for 22 years, followed by 20 more years of civil service with the Navy Department.

They moved around. Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia.

“I think the government packed us up at least 11 times,” she said.

Meanwhile, Bill, the son, had become a Navy pilot. He served, left, started a few businesses, made good money, and moved to Las Vegas in 1992 after a divorce.

Soon, he wanted his elderly parents nearby in case something happened, so they moved here.

Harry worked on a book about his 42 years with the government, while Josephine crocheted a whole house worth of goodies.

“I had the best husband I think any woman ever had,” she said.

Josephine said they enjoyed their retirement. They spent a lot of time at the Santa Fe casino around the corner. They each did their own thing, but in the end, Harry always did whatever Josephine wanted.

She’s not completely alone now. She has her son. She has the grandkids and the great-grandkids and the great-great-grandkids, the nieces and nephews and their kids.

Lots of them are coming over for her birthday today. She still has the Christmas decorations up so it’ll look nice.

After that? It’ll be time to start on the next 100 years.

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.

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