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World traveler goes to 107

San Antonio Express-News  (12/27/2002)

By Katherine Leal Unmuth

Jerrene Leon has ridden a camel through the Egyptian desert, mingled with snake charmers in Kashmir and slept in a tent under the stars in Mongolia — all in her 80s.

“She’s always the one to step forward and hold the snake of the snake charmer,” said Leon’s daughter, Madge Moore.

On Thursday, Leon celebrated her 107th birthday at Morningside Manor, where she has lived since 1990. Fellow residents, with whom she often enjoys playing Rummikub, sang “Happy Birthday” while Leon enjoyed cake.

“It’s my birthday,” she said, smiling. “Thank you.”

According to Bob Hultgren, the facility’s administrator, she is the oldest resident — though not by much. Another woman will turn 107 next month, and a second will soon be 105.

“There are some amazing ladies here,” he said.

Leon’s daughter, who is 80 herself, attributed her mother’s long life to a “cheerful attitude” and good genes. Her grandfather lived to be 99, and both her parents lived to 94.

Leon was born Dec. 26, 1895, in rural East Texas. That year, Grover Cleveland was president, Cuba revolted against Spanish control and the Supreme Court ruled the income tax unconstitutional.

As a child, Leon traveled with her family in a covered wagon to West Texas, where she was raised in the town of Rule.

“For her as a little girl, it was like a holiday, a new place to play every day,” Moore said. “They went farther west than Pasco County, and my grandmother said, ’There aren’t any schools here — we’ve got to go back to civilization’”

In fact, education became Leon’s vocation after she attended what is today Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. She went on to become a teacher. After she married Harry Leon in 1919, she retired.

During World War II, she worked in an airplane factory while her daughter served as one of a very select group of female Air Force pilots.

It was only after her husband died in 1945 that she began her life as a world traveler, after settling in Dallas.

“She’s been nearly every place except the North Pole and the South Pole,” Moore said.

Moore and a group of five other women would research a foreign destination, then take off for a trip. Moore remembers her mother showing her one photo of the women meeting Indira Gandhi.

Her travels took her as far as Bangkok, Thailand, and Istanbul, Turkey. At 80, she broke her hip in Paris — though she didn’t realize it until she returned home.

“She always brought a lot of postcards back with her,” Moore said. “She always thought postcards were prettier than her pictures.”