Local woman turns 105 - The Explorer: El Sol

Local woman turns 105

Irene Tompkins remembers 'empty spaces' in Tucson, OV

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Posted: Tuesday, June 9, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:34 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

Irene Tompkins remembers when Oro Valley and greater Tucson were nothing but "empty spaces."

The 105-year-old, now being looked after daily by her longtime neighbor and caretaker Maria Teresa Jurecky at a retirement home, is a Tucson centenarian.

Born Irene Sprister in 1904 in Appleton, Wisc., Tompkins has lived in Tucson since 1929, when she came to fill a position as a kindergarten teacher at the then-new Davis Elementary School. Her own education was scant by comparison.

"I spent most of my time going to school in a two-story brick building" that housed students in grades K-8, Tompkins said as she watched television and napped in her favorite chair.

She has been at the assisted living home since December of 2008. "I am very comfortable here."

The time that Tompkins didn't spend at school, she helped her parents with chores or other odd jobs.

"We worked pretty hard," she recalled.

In the winters, she remembered, most of the kids in the small town would flood the school's playground to ice skate.

"It was your average small town," Tompkins said of Appleton. "But I knew I wanted something different."

She found that something in Depression-era Tucson, and hasn't left since, even though times were sometimes tight.

"When I first got here, I had nothing," Tompkins said.

She lived in the Geronimo Hotel on University Boulevard, now the Auld Dubliner Irish pub.

"I moved in there before the lobby was even finished," she said.

That's how most of Tucson was, she added.

"There wasn't much here. Lots of space, lots of things left to build," Tompkins said.

She met her late husband Tommy Tompkins at a Tucson gas station in 1937, where he worked as a clerk.

"I needed help with my car, and he just hopped in and said 'Where to?'" she said.

She married Tommy later the same year. "It was a very fast romance," Tompkins said.

In many ways, it was a taboo marriage: she was 33, and he was eight years younger. Because she married later in life, Tompkins said she could not have children.

After they wed, Tommy worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad and she was released from her teaching position at Sam Hughes Elementary for a few years to study at the University of Arizona.

She got a leave of absence to study primary education and, in 1951, graduated at the age of 47.

"It was difficult, but I was happy to be continuing my education. I loved it," Tompkins said of her unconventional college experience.

She went back to work for the Flowing Wells School District after graduating, and stayed there until her retirement in 1969.

She has kept a personal letter of congratulations that President Richard Nixon gave to her upon her retirement and a 1984 birthday card from President Ronald Reagan.

The Republican Party gave her so much attention because of all the volunteer work she did for local 4-H clubs, she said.

Jurecky, 81, who has looked after Tompkins since Tompkins' husband died in 1981, said that she now feeds her chocolates to get her going every day.

"It's the only way to get her up in the mornings," Jurecky said.

The two have been neighbors since 1977. Jurecky took on duties as her caretaker since Tompkins stopped driving at the age of 101.

She remembers that Tompkins was "lively and fun. She knew how to get what she wanted."

Tompkins became an avid gardener in retirement.

"She was very active socially," and was also "pretty mentally active," a trait she still enjoys, Jurecky said.

"After Irene's husband died, she was very lonely," Jurecky said. Even with her social nature and many hobbies, "she missed Tommy a lot. He was quite the southern gentleman and always treated her very well."

To get her mind off of things, Jurecky said she taught Tompkins how to play Scrabble.

"It surprised me how quickly she picked it up," Jurecky added. "She still likes playing a good game of Scrabble."

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