Centenarians in the family

Mary Maxine Challender Sometime in the 1920s. From left to right: my grandfather Willard Challender, my great-grandfather Alton, my great-aunt Maxine, and my great-grandmother Elizabeth.

Today marks the one-hundredth birthday of my great-aunt Maxine Smith of Newton, Kansas. My mother flew out yesterday to celebrate this occasion with her siblings. Maxine was one of the older relatives of mine who was very encouraging to my genealogical pursuits in my youth.

As some readers may know, I began doing genealogy in my preteens with some encouragement from my father and his sister. I was soon encouraged to contact older relatives (i.e. relatives of my grandparents’ generation). With the exception of my maternal grandmother (who was very helpful with our shared family history), my other three grandparents had already been dead for many years. I had a living sibling of my other three grandparents, and Maxine was the younger sister of my mother’s father. Over the years we discussed genealogy by letter, in person, and over the phone (never by e-mail, as she still uses a typewriter).

Mary Maxine Challender (always known as Maxine) was born in Halstead, Harvey County, Kansas on 17 December 1915, the second child of Alton Russell and Elizabeth Belle (Severance) Challender. At five years old her family moved to a farm in nearby Sedgwick, Kansas. She graduated from Sedgwick High School and attended Kansas State College in Manhattan for two years, then transferred to Salt City Business College in Hutchinson.

Maxine went on to work as a secretary in the Agricultural Stabilization Conservation Office, and later changed jobs to work in a flower shop. She married her husband Russell Vern Smith (known as Vern) during World War II at Hutchinson 27 June 1943. Maxine later returned to secretarial work, and Vern had a job in Newton with the Kansas Gas and Electric Company. They stayed in Newton after retiring. Vern died in 2002, and years later Maxine moved to Wichita to be near two of her nieces; she has since returned to Newton.

Elizabeth LarnedIn 1987, Marian Waters Challender, the wife of Maxine’s cousin Ralph, prepared a wonderful family genealogy called Josiah Challender and His Descendants, which focused on Maxine’s grandfather Josiah, who was born in New Jersey, served in the Civil War, and later made his way to Kansas. Maxine provided the bulk of the book’s information about the Kansas Challenders. Marian died in 1992, and her husband Ralph C. Challender died earlier this year; I now have many of Cousin Marian’s genealogical papers. With Ralph’s death, Maxine is the last living grandchild of Josiah Challender, who fought at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Childhood memories include my Aunt Maxine showing me Josiah’s discharge papers and many Challender family photographs. Indeed, Maxine is the last living relative of my grandparents’ generation.

The last centenarian in my family was Hazel (Bleeker) (Child) Child (1888–1990), who was my paternal grandfather’s step-mother.[1] Of my direct ancestors, the last centenarian was my great-great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth (Eaton) Larned (1790–1890) of Dudley, Massachusetts. When you find ancestors that lived this long, especially from the nineteenth century onward, I suggest checking newspapers for stories about them. In Elizabeth’s case, her advanced age was reported in newspapers in New York (see clipping at right), Pennsylvania, and Indiana a few months before she turned 100.

ETA: Mary Maxine (Challender) Smith died at Newton 10 January 2016, 24 days after her hundredth birthday.


[1] She was first married to a Philadelphia man named Frederic Child, and after he died began dating a widower, my great-grandfather William Child, of no relationship whatsoever to Frederic. Still, before they married, hotel keepers found it odd that Mr. Child and Mrs. Child checked into different rooms.

Christopher C. Child

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.View all posts by Christopher C. Child