Be nice, worship God and eat pigs’ feet: That’s how Jeralean Talley of Inkster, Michigan says she lived to celebrate her 114th birthday today — and be crowned the oldest person in the United States. Using census records, the Gerontology Research Group verified her title after the previous oldest American, Elsie Thompson, died at 113 in March. Talley is still a youngster, relatively speaking, compared to the world’s oldest person, Jiroemon Kimura, who is 116 and lives in Japan.
In a phone conversation on the eve of her 114th birthday, Talley told TIME, “I feel okay.” These days, the supercentenarian lives with her daughter Thelma Holloway, 75, and says she passes the time by watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Wheel of Fortune as well as listening to baseball on the radio – though she doesn’t have a favorite team. She can stay up as late as midnight and feasts on her favorite foods: potato salad, honey buns, McDonald’s chicken nuggets and Wendy’s chili.
Holloway says her mother stayed active over the years by sewing dresses, making quilts and playing the slot machines at casinos. She also bowled until she was about 104 and her legs got too weak – but not before scoring 200 in one game. Now Talley, who sits all day, tries to work out by waving her arms in the air and kicking her feet. Twice a year, she goes fishing for catfish and trout with her friend Michael Kinloch, 54, an engineer she met at church in 1990. “She literally throws her line in, and I’ll run over and try to pull in the fish,” he says. “We do that routine until she gets tired of it, and then we’ll head home.”
Jeralean Kurtz was born in rural Montrose, Georgia on May 23, 1899, on a large farm where she spent long hours picking cotton and peanuts and digging sweet potatoes out of the ground until sunset. In 1935, she moved to Michigan, and a year later, she married Alfred Talley. They lived in Inkster and were wed for 52 years before he died on October 17, 1988, at the age of 95. She boasts three grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren, four great-great-grandchildren, and is the godmother to Kinloch’s 19-year-old son Tyler. When she met Tyler for the first time as a newborn, she put a $5 bill in his tiny fist. “God told me that when your child is born, I should give him $5,” she said, according to Kinloch.
Talley always says, “do unto others as you desire them to do unto you,” and insists that’s the secret to living a long life. Also, eating plenty of pork. Every Christmas, she bakes Kinloch a Hog’s Head Cheese – which doesn’t have cheese, but is basically pigs’ ears and feet in a jelly stock. “I personally feel like it’s one of those things that kind of keeps her going,” he says. He may have a point. Last month, a 105-year-old woman in Texas claimed that bacon was her secret to longevity. Talley is also known for her sweet tooth and has made friends walnut pie with walnuts from the walnut tree in her backyard.
On Sundays, you can find the devout Christian at New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church – front and center in a seat specially saved for her. In fact, this Sunday, in honor of Talley’s 114th birthday, the church will christen its driveway “Mother Jeralean Talley Drive.” After services, there will be a special luncheon at its recreation center. The White House even sent a letter to be printed in the program, says Christonna Campbell, 56, who sits on the church’s board and has been organizing Talley’s birthday parties since she was 95. No doubt the congregation will snap as many pictures of the supercentenarian as possible because, Campbell says, “the only time she will allow us to snap a picture of her is on her birthday.”