Centenarian credits longevity to ballroom dancing

By Sara Bruestle | Jul 30, 2014
Courtesy of: Judith Strand Lillian Nesheim, of Mukilteo, celebrated her 100th birthday on July 15 with a party at Harbour Pointe Retirement.

Lillian Nesheim is honest about how it feels to be 100 years old – it feels like she’s 100 years old.

“You know, it doesn’t feel any different than the usual day, except I’m more tired all the time,” she said. “I feel like I’m 100, very much so.”

Nesheim, of Mukilteo, turned 100 on July 15. She celebrated her birthday at Harbour Pointe Retirement that day, with about 30 friends and staff. She blew out 10 candles on her cake this year – one for each decade.

She also had a family party at the Church of the Nazarene in Kirkland on July 12.

Nesheim was born near Stanwood on July 15, 1914 – the same year that Harry Fox is said to have invented the Foxtrot, a ballroom dance.

Until she was about 8 years old, her family stayed in logging camps all over Washington state. Her father and uncle were both loggers, and her mother cooked for the loggers in the camps.

“The family all got into logging,” Nesheim said. “We moved from place to place in these logging camps. The land would be logged off, and then they’d move somewhere else.”

The family of four then moved to Seattle, and Nesheim’s mother opened up a restaurant in Pioneer Square. There she continued to feed the loggers, even if they couldn’t pay her.

After Nesheim graduated from West Seattle High School in 1934, she worked as a waitress in her mother’s restaurant.

When she was 19, she moved into an apartment with her best friend, Lillian Horace. Nesheim nicknamed her “Tillie” so there wouldn’t be any confusion when either Lillian received a phone call. Their rent was $18 a month.

It was then that Nesheim, who is very shy, discovered that she loved to dance. She and Tillie would go ballroom dancing three nights a week at either the Norslander Ballroom or the Trianon Ballroom, which were both near today’s Space Needle.

The two of them would get dolled up and either walk the 2 miles there and back or take the streetcar part way. They’d be out until 2 or 3 a.m. most times.

“That was a thing that you did in those days,” she said. “I went by myself and learned by myself. I just went dancing. It was great times.”

She met both of her husbands at the dances. In 1938, she married her first husband, Earl Costello, an accountant. They moved to Kirkland and together had two sons, Mike and Joe. They divorced in 1966.

Around that time, she would go dancing with a group of single women on Saturday nights. She kept up the hobby until she was about 55 years old.

“Her whole face lights up when she talks about her days of ballroom dancing,” said Judith Strand, spokesperson for Harbour Pointe Retirement. “It is a lovely thing.

“She was really a very shy person who found out that she could really be a good ballroom dancer.”

In 1967, she met her future second husband, Chester “Chet” Nesheim, who was an electrician. They were married for about three years, until he died in 1972.

When she wasn’t dancing, Nesheim was golfing, spending time with her four grandchildren, fishing, digging for clams, keeping up with the Mariners and Seahawks, or touring the world.

She’s been to Finland, Germany, Sweden, England, France, Italy and Russia. Russia was coincidentally her favorite and last country to visit. She was then 70 years old.

“Russia was so different than the other countries,” she said. “I liked Italy really well, too.”

She now lives at the Harbour Pointe Residential Retirement & Assisted Living Center.

The staff had lots of surprises for Nesheim on her birthday. She received a bottle of champagne and two glasses, a gift basket and luxury towels. She also was presented with a proclamation from the mayor and birthday cards from Willard Scott of “The Today Show” and President Barack Obama.

She heard speeches and was read letters from friends and staff wishing her a happy birthday – and many more.

What’s her secret to longevity? She credits good family genes – her grandfather, who lived to be over 90, remarried at 80 and fathered a son – and, of course, ballroom dancing.

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