Long-retired Santa Rosa chicken rancher and Holocaust escapee Elsie Rich, an unrelentingly joyful soul and one of the oldest people on Earth, died Thursday at age 110.
"I was with her. She went peacefully," said friend Evie Abramowitz, who's 92 and spent all day, every day, talking and laughing with Rich and watching over her at the Vintage Brush Creek care facility in Santa Rosa.
"She just wore out," Abramowitz said. "She was four months into 110. How much better could you go?"
Rich, who fled Austria with her husband in 1938, was renowned for her smile and kindness, her dearth of pity while playing Scrabble, her poetry and her powers of recollection. Past age 100 she lived alone in an upstairs apartment off Hoen Avenue and in regular exercise classes outpaced people decades younger.
She was a beloved resident at Vintage Brush Creek, where her 110th birthday was celebrated in grand style on Aug. 6.
Shortly after the party, Rich was paid a visit by L. Stephen Coles, co-founder and director of the Los Angeles Gerontology Research Group at UCLA, which tracks and studies people 110 years old and older throughout the world. Coles and his wife spoke with Rich, and Coles verified that she was qualified to be listed among the planet's supercentenarians, or oldest residents.
Coles said Thursday he enjoyed meeting Rich and he found her quite communicative, despite her poor hearing.
"She was responsive to our questions once she knew what we were asking," he said.
Rich was the oldest Sonoma County resident, and Coles' group confirmed that she was the fourth-oldest-known person in California, and the 23rd oldest American. Only 76 people on Earth were confirmed to be older than her.
Her parents named her Elsa Schiffman when she was born in Vienna on Aug. 6, 1901. When she was old enough to do the work, she helped out at her family's textile factory, and in 1932 she married businessman Henry Reich.
Vienna was a vibrant, stimulating city in the 1930s. For years, Rich relished attending lectures by the renowned psychiatrist Alfred Adler, whom she remembers challenging his students to reach their full capacity.
But toward the end of the decade, as Adolf Hitler rose to power in neighboring Germany, Rich and her husband decided that Vienna was not a good place for Jews.
They sailed for New York in 1938, leaving everything behind — even their names. In America, "Reich" became "Rich" and "Elsa" became "Elsie."
The couple spent four years in New York, then decided they'd move to Los Angeles. They drove across the country — "We wanted to see all of America," Rich recalled at the time of her 100th birthday in 2001.
She and Henry stopped to visit a friend in Santa Rosa for a few days on that 1942 cross-country drive, and stayed. They bought a chicken ranch south of Santa Rosa, near the present Costco store.
"It was a nice living," Rich said in 2000. "When you like something, you do well."
After Henry Rich died in 1976, his 75-year-old widow sold the ranch and moved into an apartment. For the next three-plus decades, Elsie Rich remained vital and engaged by teaching exercise classes, reading, writing poetry, trouncing friends at Scrabble, sharing stories and laughter, eating, taking an active part in the spiritual and social life of Congregation Beth Ami and the Jewish women's group, Hadassah, and taking buses often enough to casinos.