Saltwater Portrait

Irma Koch: Globe-trotting centenarian

Lewes great-grandmother turns 100
June 5, 2018

When asked the secret to a long life, Irma Koch said simply, "Don't smoke, and have a happy, nonstressful marriage."

Irma should know; she will turn 100 June 11.

After graduating high school in 1935, the outgoing Scranton, Pa., native landed her first job, elevator operator at the four-story Globe Store in downtown Scranton. There, she met future husband Louis Koch. "He was assistant electrician, and so quiet and reserved," she said. "There is truth to the saying that opposites attract!"

The Kochs raised two children, Louis Jr. and Carol. When the children reached high school, Irma returned to work as a high school library aide. "I worked there for about 10 years, and I just loved it," she said. "I loved working with the students, getting them books and helping with their projects."

When Louis retired, the two set out to visit all 50 states. Their first trip was a month-long, cross-country trek that took them by bus to the northwest corner of the country, down the coast to Los Angeles and back to Scranton through the middle states. Another bus trip took them throughout the American South. Her eyes light up when she talks about their travels together. "It was very easy traveling, and our bus driver had been cross-country eight times, so he knew all the points of interest," she said. "We saw Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, the corn murals in South Dakota, the Badlands and Mount Rushmore."

They traveled a bit farther to reach her favorite destination. "Everybody should go to Hawaii once, and I've been there twice," she smiled. "Every state had something that made it attractive in its own right, but Hawaii was just beautiful."

The pair visited Europe four times, Canada several times and even crossed the Arctic Circle. By 2000, North Dakota and Texas were the only states remaining. But, their travel plans came to a halt when Louis suffered a heart attack during an Alaskan cruise. After surgery and recovery in Pennsylvania, he began showing signs of Alzheimer's.

Daughter Carol, a Compassionate Care Hospice nurse living in Newark, asked them to come live with her and husband John Greblunas. Louis died in 2002. "He was a wonderful father, a wonderful husband. He was a Scout Master for 35 years and could do anything with his hands," Irma said, stroking her own hands.

Irma then began volunteering at Compassionate Care, working in the office, comforting patients and families, and baking cookies well into her 90s. A few years after Louis's death, she spent a weekend with her granddaughter in San Antonio, Texas, and a day in Fargo, N.D. "North Dakota was my last state. I got them all," she said. "I'm so glad I did. We have the best places in our country."

The family moved to Lewes in 2014. "I tell you, I am so glad I came here. I've met so many nice people," she said.

Carol says her mother has no problem making new friends. "We were at the supermarket and suddenly she's bagging groceries for the lady in front of us," Carol said. "They were talking, and she found out the lady had cancer and felt bad for her."

Two other neighborhood women have elderly mothers living with them. Irma and these friends get together often to have lunch, play cards or just socialize. "We call them 'the golden girls' because everyone knows them," Carol said.

Wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt, Irma talks about her love of music and dancing. At age 92, she won a bottle of champagne in a Caribbean cruise air guitar contest. On a recent cabaret night at Snow Hill, Md.'s Blue Dog Cafe, she entered the on-stage hula competition. "They did a vote, and guess who won? Moi!" she exclaimed, proudly thumbing at her chest. "Of course, I had experience doing the hula in Hawaii."

While Irma's father died of cancer at age 44, her mother lived to be 99 and raised three children on her own. "She stayed in the same house until she died and was alert to the end," Irma said.

Irma only learned her mother was dying an hour before her death, when a doctor was called to check a growth on her neck. "The doctor came and said, 'Your mother is dying; her vital signs are going down,' and she was dead within the hour," she said. "She asked for a drink. She had a sip of ginger ale, waved at us, laid back on her bed and passed. She was wonderful to us and deserved that death."

A fanatic Phillies and Eagles fan, Irma attended a World Series playoff game 10 years ago. "I got a rally towel, ate at Chickie's and Pete's, and they won the game!" she said. "I was pretty angry at them last year though; last year was tough. But I was jumping up and down when the Eagles won the Super Bowl!"

Irma tells people she's from Scranton, just like Joe Biden, whose career she has followed since his first election to the Senate.

When Carol asked Irma what she wanted for her 100th birthday, she said, "A party and my picture on a Smucker's jelly jar!"

"The Today Show's" Al Roker and sponsor Smucker's celebrate viewers turning 100 with their name and photo on a jelly jar. "We sent in the application, so we'll see," Carol said.

One thing they could plan for certain was Irma's birthday bash. "I can't wait to dance. We've already had more than 100 RSVPs!" she said.

Irma's children, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren will join hundreds of family and friends to celebrate her birthday Saturday, June 16.

"I feel blessed," she said. "I don't use a cane, I'm alert and healthwise, I'm pretty good. I've had a few things come up along the way, but I always come up shining. I have to say, I did have a wonderful life."