Melvin Brice lived through the Great Depression and World War II, but friends and family were not sure he would survive 2020.
Thursday was a day that Brice prayed he would live to see — his 100th birthday. A small group of family members gathered at his home in Grifton for the occasion. It was the first time many of them had seen each other in months; some family members did not come together for Thanksgiving or Christmas due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Sahib Brown, his wife and their two daughters underwent testing for COVID-19 and then isolated themselves in their home near Moseley, Va., prior to making the trip to Pitt County for the celebration.
“Turning 100, it’s not often that you get to have a relative who lives to see this milestone,” Brown said. “I just felt like after all the separation that we’ve had last year, trying to be there for him would be good for all of us.
“He has said over the last several years that he just wants to live to see 100. He would say, ‘If I could live to see 100, I’ll be OK with being gone from here.’”
It was not COVID-19 that threatened to keep Brice from reaching his goal. A military policeman for the Army in World War II, he suffered a stroke on Father’s Day of 2020 that left him hospitalized for months.
“At 99 years old, the doctors said, ‘Listen, this is something he’s probably not coming back from,’” Brown recalled. “They said, ‘We’ll send him home because there’s not a lot we can do.’”
Brice also developed pneumonia, and hospice care was recommended. But Gertrude Brice said her husband began making a recovery that surprised everyone.
“We didn’t think he would walk again, but he’s walking,” she said. “Some of them can’t believe that he’s walking.”
Brice, who is the sole survivor among his five siblings, never had children. But when he married Gertrude in 1983 following the death of his first wife, he considered her children and grandchildren to be his as well.
“We call him Pop,” Mrs. Brice said. “When we got married they all accepted Pop as their grandfather. They all take Pop as theirs; that’s just the way it is.”
Brown describes the man he calls his grandfather as a “kind and gentle soul,” whose priorities are faith, family and fishing.
“He’s a big fellow,” Brown said of Brice, who stands about 6 feet, 3 inches tall. “Big people can be intimidating sometimes, but he is just a kind soul who has always been willing to help a person in need. … If you were friend of the family, you were family to him.”
It was friends rather than family who persuaded the Brices to move to Pitt County from New Jersey in the 1980s. The Brices, who are Seventh-Day Adventists, had visited the area for some church activities, developing relationships with some couples in the area. When it came time for Brice to retire from his job as a delivery driver, the couple headed to eastern North Carolina, which now has been their home for more than 35 years.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates the number of Americans age 100 and older increased more than 40 percent between 2000 and 2014, but centenarians like Brice are still uncommon.
What is the secret to his longevity? Studies at California’s Loma Linda University’s show that Seventh-Day Adventists live longer compared to the general public, in part, because of their diets, which are primarily vegetarian.
“He has been just as strong as an ox, a healthy guy who has always eaten healthy, taken care of himself well,” Brown said. “I guess that maybe some of that contributed to how he has been able to sustain and bounce back from his illness.”
Gertrude Brice said she and her husband not only avoid meat but also abstain from alcohol and caffeine. Until about a decade ago, the couple walked two miles a day for exercise.
Brown was surprised at things his grandparents could do well into their 80s. One of his favorite memories is of a time that his family was scheduled to drive from New Jersey to Grifton for a visit but had to cancel. He didn’t consider asking the Brices to make the drive north instead and assumed the family would need to reschedule.
“My grandmother calls my phone … and she says, ‘Come and open the door,’” he said, laughing. “They had driven from North Carolina to Linden, New Jersey, to see us because we couldn’t come and see them. She said, ‘Well, we’re old, but we’re not immobile.’”
In the months since his stroke, Brice has worked to regain his independence.
“He’s dressing himself and taking care of himself,” his wife said. “You don’t know how wonderful it really is.”
Brice is grateful as well.
“I thank God for being alive and surviving as well as I am,” he said.