CLAYTON, CA (May 15, 2023) — Alice Van Essen celebrated her 100th birthday three times.
First, at the Diamond Terrace Senor Community, she and her niece Carylon Van Essen hosted a party for friends, fellow residents and staff members.
Next, on April 29, she was the guest of honor at a joyful family party at a Concord house her son John Van Essen and daughter-in-law Sherry Van Essen rented for that purpose.
Finally, the Tapestry Vocal Ensemble sang “Happy Birthday” to her during their Spring Concert on April 30 at United Methodist Church in Walnut Creek. After the song, the centenarian stood for an introduction and generous applause. During and after the concert, she generously accepted congratulations from friends, family and total strangers.
At the Diamond Terrace event, among many smiling faces, best friend Ro Ricketts and other residents expressed the warm feelings they have for her. “Her friendliness and how she always smiles,” was how one friend put it. A new resident commented on how meeting Alice had made her feel welcomed.
Finding each other has been a boon for both Alice and Ro. They spend so much time talking on the phone, conversations have been heard to end with the exchange: “You hang up first; No, you hang up first.”
Everyone respectfully calls her “Alice.” She noted that when she was providing day care during World War II, all her young charges called her Alice. Soon, sons Leonard and John were doing the same. Everyone has followed along since.
Alice moved to Clayton from Sand Point, Idaho, in 2020. She lost husband Jack Van Essen there in 2019 after 77 years of marriage.
The new centenarian has lived a varied life. At one time or another, she has been a high school secretary, run the gift shop at the Scotty’s Castle attraction in Death Valley and ridden around the country as co-pilot in Jack’s tractor-trailer rig.
At the family gathering, grandnephew John Seaman recalled the time when he was young and “I was the big thing in the neighborhood when Alice and Jack pulled in for a visit and parked their impressive big rig on our street.”
Alice had some medical issues in the last year which required hospitalization at John Muir Medical Center. Great-grandnephew Quincy Hill remembers showing up with his cowboy hat and left-handed acoustic guitar to serenade her. Soon everyone in the ward was listening in on her beloved cowboy songs.
She won Quincy over again recently after he expressed the wish to make his first car a used Ford Mustang. “She supported me without conditions, while others were more worried about repair costs and insurance premiums.” he said. (He got the car. It’s in the shop.)
Alice gets asked more than anything else about how she has managed to live so long. It may have something to do with the single-mindedness behind her welcoming demeanor.
“She has gotten this far along by not letting other people do things for her,” niece Carylon said. “She tries to do them by herself until she just can’t anymore.”
Apart from socializing with friends, Alice keeps busy by looking after the library at Diamond Terrace.
Born in the Glassell Park neighborhood of northeast Los Angeles in 1923, Alice has also lived in Bishop, Perris and China Lake in Southern California, and Beattie, near Death Valley in Nevada.
Alice’s sincere comments at her family party centered on “the love I have for each and every one of you here.”
In the family, and at her residence, it was not hard to see that the feeling was mutual.
Norm Hallquist earned his bachelor's degree in journalism from Cal. He has returned to his first love following interim careers as a U.S. Navy officer and as a workers' compensation lawyer. He lives in Concord.