Chris Smith: It was 109-year-old Art Janssen’s first day on TV, and his last with us

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This past Friday evening I hoped to take some popcorn to a senior-care home in Windsor and watch a special on TV with my mostly blind and largely deaf and entirely delightful friend, Art Janssen.

My plan was to narrate for Art what I was seeing on The CW Network’s two-hour broadcast of the Nov. 25 Hollywood Christmas Parade. Art, you may recall, rode in it in a dreamy Rolls-Royce convertible as a guest of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

But the telecast came on at 8 p.m. and Art died at 5. He’d been slipping since shortly after our return from Tinseltown.

So I watched the broadcast at home and relived being alongside Art and his friend and guardian Denise Thompson just 19 days earlier. Art had smiled and waved and soaked in the love and good wishes from a throng of spectators who’d almost certainly never before seen such a clearly pleased 109-year-old man in a parade, or anywhere else for that matter.

“God bless you!” some shouted to the Santa Rosa native and long-ago mayor Sebastopol. And “Happy birthday,” though his birthday was in October, and “Merry Christmas!”

ART’S WAVING ARM hurt when we reached the end of the 3.2 mile, after-dark parade down Hollywood Boulevard, then Vine Street, then Sunset Boulevard. But he gently glowed.

He’d been a star for a day. Among the best parts was the time he’d spent with his hosts, three dear women — Sabrina Sieck, Amanda Joiner and Suzanne Smagala — from the Florida-based Ripley Entertainment, Inc.

Art paid Amanda the ultimate compliment: he told her she reminded him of Veronica. She is his friend and favorite server at the restaurant where he and I often lunched, Louie’s Fine Foods at Third Street and Fulton Road in Santa Rosa.

Amanda and her colleagues quickly fell in love with Art, whom they’d invited to Hollywood to help celebrate the 100th year of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

It began in 1918 with the newspaper cartoon by that name in which Santa Rosa native Robert Ripley shared curious-to-freakish facts and phenomena that he’d gathered from around the world. Today Ripley Entertainment produces the cartoon and operates Believe It or Not! Odditoriums and other attractions across America and beyond.

The company learned about Art a few months ago and thought, what better way to celebrate 100 years of Believe It or Not! at the Hollywood Christmas Parade than by showcasing a remarkably vibrant 109-year-old man from Robert Ripley’s hometown of Santa Rosa, California.

ART DIDN’T KNOW why he was alive at 109, but he was grateful for every day, for every lunch with a friend, for every hug, every cup of ice cream, every glass of cherry juice.

Until he was told he was cut off because of his low blood pressure, he also enjoyed the very occasional glass of wine. And I never saw anyone who more savored an Irish coffee.

As I mentioned a while back, Art would kiss your cheek when you embraced him, kiss the back of your hand when you shook his hand. He’d spontaneously break into singing, “Everything is beautiful, in it’s own way ... “

He wasn’t simply still living at 109, he was alive.

IT TAKES A WHILE for it to sink in just how incredibly rare that is. The typical American male would beat great odds by living to 89, and Art could have been that guy’s father.

Most of the oldest people on Earth are women not living in the United States.

Of the 36 oldest people on the planet — all of them aged 112 to 115 — only 2, or 6 percent, are men. And only seven of them, or fewer than 20 percent, are Americans.

Our Art Janssen was a marvel, but at the same time he was just a regular guy, a long-retired insurance sales manager who lost his wife, Juanita, decades ago and couldn’t put his finger on why in the world he woke up day after day long past age 100.

Art didn’t dwell on the mystery, for a number of reasons. He could see well enough to detect each morning that the sun had risen, he knew from experience there might well be an outing with friends on his calendar and his talking watch alerted him that it was time for breakfast.

You can contact columnist Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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