Born just two years before the outbreak of the 1918 influenza, one could forgive Elma Gust for being reticent to rejoin society amid another pandemic.
But that person wouldn’t know Elma very well.
She celebrated her 105th birthday on May 26 with friends by her side and a margarita in hand at the Living Court Assisted Living Community in Enumclaw, where she’s lived since 2017.
About a week before, Elma had regaled staff of her other birthday plans, said Living Court executive director Toni Blaettler: Spending the weekend with family at Ocean Shores, where she’d “have cocktails, find a surfer boyfriend, and eat clams for breakfast.”
“When you interact with her, you can’t help but smile,” Blaettler said. “How can you not have a good time with somebody like that? … She’s happy, friendly, and loving. That’s why it’s easy to take care of her.”
Elma, along with her daughter Ann Baker (a former Enumclaw High School vice principal), joined the Courier-Herald to talk about her love of music, musings on faith and the many adventures she’s had over the last century.
Elma was born in Tacoma and has lived around there, DuPont and University Place for most of her life, engendering a lifelong love of swimming, clam digging and boating.
Her father Murrill Foreman was an electrician with a knack for identifying trees and predicting the weather, and her mother Sarah Foreman was a mild and generous woman with great skill in cooking.
The couple moved from New Jersey to DuPont in the early 1910s, where Murrill took a job as a supervisor at the city’s eponymous DuPont explosives manufacturing plant. They had Elma and two boys, Byron and Burton. 95-year-old Burton, the “baby” of the siblings, is still alive, too.
Elma herself has two children, six grandchildren and around 18 great-grandchildren, “and they’re all loving,” she said.
“Or really good fakers,” Baker joked back.
Elma started playing the piano at 5, practicing half an hour every day before school. She loved songs like Bing Crosby’s “I Love You Truly.” By 12, she was playing full time at church, where she liked to play the hymns “jazzy.”
But disagreements broke out between Elma, who loved jazz, and her brother Byron, who also played the piano but preferred classical music. They “never compromised” over music and would tussle over the knobs on the radio, Elma said.
She can remember one day in particular, when they were around 5 and 7 years old, and Byron tuned the radio back to his station: “He was bent over. So I picked up a big dictionary and whacked him on the back. He dropped to the floor. I thought I’d killed him. (Then) he chased me all over the village.”
As a teenager, Elma took long trips to practice at Seattle’s Paramount Theater. An instructor there had heard her play and offered her lessons for free as long as Elma could get there.
So every Saturday, Murrill drove Elma from DuPont to Tacoma, where she took a boat to Seattle on a Mosquito Fleet boat, part of a private aquatic transportation system that predated today’s state-run ferry network. Then, Elma took a streetcar downtown to her lessons in the basement of the theater.
“You’d be afraid these days to send a teenager (on that trip),” Elma said.
In 1931 and ‘32, Elma studied music at the University of Washington, and eventually developed a career in music that included playing funerals (earning 50 cents for each one), events, and musicals like “The King and I.”
Perhaps Elma’s most important job was the 30 years she spent as an organ player for the Lakewood VA hospital.
Every Sunday, she played and sang for both Catholic and Protestant church services. Elma, who is herself Protestant, became a sort of diplomat between the two groups.
The Catholic priests, unlike the Protestants, tended not to marry. So Elma would occasionally bring them home to visit with her and her husband.
That meant Baker, off at college at the time, would occasionally come home to the sight of three or four Catholic priests, some in their undershirts or with their clergy collars removed, lounging, drinking and watching football with Baker’s dad.
After a while, the clergy went home, leaving a wad of cash on the floor in payment.
It was something “ecumenical” about Elma that put people at ease and brought them together, Baker said, referring to the principle of cooperation and unity among Christian denominations.
The hospital served many soldiers who suffered from severe war-induced PTSD. Those veterans, mostly men, had suffered severe mental and physical trauma and were often dangerous or difficult to manage, but Elma made friends with them easily.
Elma’s music was therapeutic for those patients, Baker said, who Elma stuck with for years.
“They were good to me,” Elma said. “They would come up and tell me some outrageous story, but they ended up being nice to me. I liked them all, because I felt so sorry for them.”
If there was a place to discover, Elma would take you there. Or she’d just go herself, like when she climbed trees to collect the pussy willow growing atop.
One of those times, her skirt caught on the branches, leaving Elma aloft and semi-nude, she said. She thought there was no one around until, Elma said, she looked up and saw a worker high up in a telephone pole who saw the whole thing.
“Life with mother was not boring,” Baker said.
During family outings, Elma would find huge pieces of wood – trees, if she could carry them – and drag them down the beach, singing songs from her days as a “girl guide,” similar to the Girl Scouts organization.
“Burn, fire burn, flicker flicker flame,” she’d sing. It was one of many songs Elma made her family sing constantly, Baker said.
Around 1960, the family took a three-week trip in three 15-foot long boats up the Inland Passage, a series of waterways that winds from the Puget Sound all the way to the coast of Alaska.
They witnessed bears, dolphins and mink, and orcas that came right up next to their boats as they forded the waters with little besides paper charts and a thirst for adventure.
Elma, herself an avid dancer, was impressed by her first husband Dave Johnston’s skill on the dance floor and his beautiful, black wavy hair.
Joking about Johnston, who passed away in 1971, Elma said: “He’s not the dancer he used to be.”
Afterward, she married a firefighter named Pete Gust, who she’s since outlived too.
“I killed him, or something,” Elma laughed.
“And everybody else, too,” Baker added.
Baker said that between Elma’s love of walking, gardening, swimming, dancing and exploring, she’s lived a very active life. She’s “perennially cheerful” and loves to laugh, Baker added.
“I think about it now that I’m older,” Elma said. “I’m about half dead. How lucky all these years have been. I’ve been happy and content.”
Naturally, one might wonder to what Elma attributes her longevity.
Her answer: Parents who loved their children and encouraged them to play outside. They were “wonderful,” Elma says.
“And your children are wonderful,” Baker interjects, earning a laugh from her mom. “You weren’t supposed to laugh at that,” Baker adds.
“Now there’s a joke,” Elma responds, earning an even bigger laugh back.