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They are an elite group of people who have had a front-row seat to some of the most dramatic changes the world has ever known. They are Montana’s centenarians.

Consider this:

When they were born a century ago, life expectancy was just over 50 years. When they were babies, New Mexico and Arizona were admitted to the Union as the 47th and 48th states, and William Howard Taft was president.

When they were 7 and 8, the United States entered World War I, and in 1916, Montana voters elected Janette Rankin, the first female member of the U.S. Congress.

When they were 9 or 10, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, giving women the right to vote.

When they were 17 or 18, Charles Lindbergh made his solo trans-Atlantic flight. They lived through the stock market crash of 1929, survived the Great Depression and were there in 1935 when Social Security was established.

They lived through the New Deal, which put Americans to work, and experienced the pleasure and pain of Prohibition.

They have seen the world at war and at peace.

On Tuesday, as they dined on pot roast and mashed potatoes, Montana’s centenarians were honored during a special luncheon in their honor during the 43rd annual Governor’s Conference on Aging in Billings.

They were the center of attention.

“You are all truly amazing people,” said Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger. “We can learn much from your life’s experiences.”

Montana’s 2000 census showed there were 162 centenarians in the state. That number increased to 277 in 2010, and it is estimated that there will be more than 3,000 by 2025.

“By recognizing and honoring our eldest of the elders, we hope to raise the public’s awareness of our aging society,” said Anna Whiting Sorrell, director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Their stories and experiences were as varied as their personalities. The common denominator was that each agreed to share their secret to long life.

Hildegard Gappa, 100, of Billings: “Leave the candy alone.”

Edward Ulmen, 102, of Billings: “Be nice to everybody.”

Margaret Cole, 101, of Billings: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Doris McCulloch, 101, of Billings: “I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t go with men that do!”

McDonald Held, 101, of Billings: “I have remained active and I have never smoked or used alcohol.”

McDonald will celebrate his 102nd birthday on Oct. 14. He and his wife Beverly, 91, have been married 71 years. As a high school youth, he would rise early in the morning and jog around the block four times. The morning ritual would become a lifelong habit.

Today, he works out at 5 a.m. each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the YMCA.

A devout Christian and Republican, McDonald sharpens his mind on national politics and religion. When he was 74, he became an ordained Baptist minister, a feat he considers his most outstanding lifetime achievement. His favorite president was Ronald Reagan because he had a sense of what the country was and what it needed to be.

“He set us on the right path,” Held said.

President Barack Obama scares him. “I am afraid that he wants to take us into socialism.”

Modern-day evangelists also frighten him because Held says some use their Christianity to line their pockets. He is put off by those who say God will bless them if they give generously.

“That’s not why God blesses you,” he said.

As a boy, postage stamps cost 2 cents, his father chauffeured the family in a horse and buggy and Held learned to drive in a Model T. He’s lived through a century of progress that has brought to him a computer.

“I don’t know much about it except how to write an email,” he said. “The changes that come about in my lifetime have been enormous, at times overwhelming.”

Each centenarian, whom Bohlinger referred to as “treasures,” received a proclamation of recognition from Gov. Brian Schweitzer and a free lunch.

“These are the people who made Montana what it is,” said Gladys Considine, chair of the Governors Advisory Council.

Billings Clinic sponsored the lunch.

Contact Cindy Uken at or 657-1287.