New Jersey teacher, believed to be America's oldest, turns 100

New Jersey news from Eyewitness News

January 11, 2014 9:44:02 AM PST
A woman believed to be America's oldest working teacher is marking her 100th birthday this week.

Students, teachers and family members of Agnes Zhelesnik gave her a birthday celebration Friday at The Sundance School in North Plainfield.

Zhelesnik, who is known to her students as "Granny," works 35 hours a week teaching Home Economics, conducting after-school cooking and sewing lessons, and making costumes for school plays. She started working at the school at the age of 81.

Students in a packed school gymnasium sang 'Happy Birthday' and presented her with a cake Friday before putting on a school performance wearing costumes that Zhelesnik had helped sew.

Born on January 12, 1914, in Thomas, West Virginia, to Lithuanian immigrants, Zhelesnik was one of five children. Her father worked in the mines until the family moved to a small farming town in Illinois before relocating to Bayonne, New Jersey, when Zhelesnik was in the 3rd grade. She had to drop out of school during the Depression to work in a can factory, and her $16 per week salary sustained her family for a time.

She was married for 61 years before her husband passed away in 1999. The couple had three children and four grandchildren, and Zhelesnik has four great-grandchildren, one of whom joined her, with one of her daughters and granddaughters, at the school celebration Friday.

"She is just the happiest person, and stress free, and enjoys life, that's really it - simple," said her granddaughter, Nina Lord.

Zhelesnik, seated in a velvet throne, received hugs and gifts from her students, as she reflected on the secret to her longevity.

"As long as you're healthy and you're active, keep busy," she said. "To me, you have to keep busy."

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