COLUMBIA — Nell Atchley has never liked being the center of attention.
On Monday, she was.
With a small group of family and friends, Atchley celebrated an exceptional birthday. She turned 102.
Nurses at the South Hampton Place nursing home prepared for the special occasion by whisking her white hair into a ponytail and dabbing red lipstick onto her mouth — the way she used to do every day to impress her husband when he came home from work.
Atchley's great-grandchildren blew out the birthday candles and took turns feeding her bites of a yellow sheet cake topped with pink and yellow icing flowers.
Another resident, Tai Tan, who turns 102 on Sept. 9, came by to share some of the birthday cake.
Besides Atchley and Tan, three other centenarians live at the home, and two more are expected to move in by the end of the year, said Robin Bull, the assistant administrator.
People are living longer these days, Bull said, and availability of medical care and assisted living facilities are key factors that affect longevity.
The U.S. is home to more than 70,000 centenarians — a number higher than in any other country in the world, the bureau estimates. A full 2010 census report won't be available until August, 2011, said spokesman Derick Moore.
What is the secret to Atchley's longevity? Her granddaugher, Amy Lannin, speculates that it was a daily routine of rising early, eating a balanced breakfast, indulging in a glass of sherry before lunch and delighting in the company of family.
Perhaps Atchley looks young for her age because her only medication is one aspirin each day, her daughter and only child, Kathy Mielke, noted. Or maybe it was her insistence on drinking a glass of orange juice — fresh-squeezed when possible — every day of her life since the 1920s.
Although the 5-foot-2-inch "professional grandma" has lost her hearing, she is otherwise in excellent health — she's never even broken a bone.
Atchley, born in 1909, has a past as colorful as the cursive calligraphy on her cake.
She and her six siblings were raised in Bertha, Mo. — a farm town that was so rural it no longer exists. Her parents owned a general store where they sold countless bags of sugar to Prohibition bootleggers and were frequently looted by bands of gypsies, Mielke said.
Atchley and her high school sweetheart, Lloyd Atchley, married and lived in Omaha, Neb., for nearly 50 years. He read Shakespeare aloud to her every night before bed when they were newlyweds. He was a lawyer who brought home pickles and firewood — items clients paid him during the Great Depression, Mielke said.
“They were so much in love their entire lives,” Mielke said. “She ruled the roost and the remote” until her husband died at age 83.
An old photograph of the couple holding hands and laughing at the camera had been placed on the cake table, and Atchley gazed at it longingly between sips of iced tea from a plastic cup.
She was active in a small ladies' golf team for many years, but Atchley was also a devoted mother who loved being a homebody and homemaker, Mielke said. She used to enjoy reading magazines like "Good Housekeeping" and "Ladies’ Home Journal," and she always baked cookies and other goodies when grandchildren and great-grandchildren visited.
Atchley took up oil painting in her 50s to outdo her younger sister, Shirley, with whom she often engaged in playful acts of competition. She crafted a variety of still-lifes and landscapes but refused to hang the paintings in her home despite encouragement from family.
“I read that Liz Taylor thinks nothing is more beautiful in a home than clean walls with nothing hanging,” Mielke remembers her mother saying years ago. Atchley, who often emulated movie stars and famous people she admired, kept her paintings on the floor.
Today, one of Atchley’s favorite pastimes is watching her granddaughter flip through family photographs on her iPhone. She just stares at the phone in amazement no matter how many times she sees it, Lannin said.
"She's seen so many changes in her lifetime," she said.