‘She’s beyond remarkable’

Mary Routery, left, speaks with Jeff Turner and Corin Kelly at Habaneros Grill during Routery’s 103rd birthday celebration. (Cameron Miculka/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — When Faith Cosby was about 3 years old, right around the start of World War II, she got separated from her aunt, Mary Routery, and her mother in a crowd on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

The adults finally found Cosby in a police car.

The officer asked which of the women was the young girl’s mother.

“And my mother,” Cosby said, “pointed at Mary and said, ‘She is!’”

And indeed, Cosby said at a celebration of Routery’s 103rd birthday on Saturday at Habaneros Grill, the woman has been her “other mother” throughout her life.

While Cosby now lives in Southern California and her aunt lives in Kailua-Kona, Cosby said she comes to town just about every year for Routery’s birthday.

“She has the most positive attitude about people and life of anybody I’ve ever known,” Cosby said of her aunt, saying she “won’t be an orphan” as long as Routery is around.

About two dozen people came out to the restaurant Saturday evening to celebrate Routery’s birthday. After the meal, Routery said she was so grateful to have so many people willing to help celebrate.

“I thought it was great,” she said. “That’s what makes life interesting and worthwhile.”

Routery was born in Illinois in 1915, five years before women got the right to vote in the United States. In her youth, she found a passion for supporting the equal rights of all people as well as advocating for the environment.

Growing up as the daughter of a judge in Illinois, Routery would often sneak in and sit in the back of her father’s courtroom as a young girl, usually when she felt it was about time for him to go home and she wanted him to take her for ice cream.

“And I think I started thinking about other people’s stories that way, other people’s lives, rather than just my own,” she said.

And even though she was pampered and it would have been easy not to think of others, she saw things in her youth “that made me want to read and learn and know more about other people and how they lived.”

On one occasion, when she was about 16 or 17, she was driving with her family to a party held at a large tobacco farm and estate owned by a senator in Kentucky.

Driving through the countryside, she saw a chain gang of black prisoners in chains at work.

“And I thought, ‘it’s so hot; it’s so terrible out there in that sun,’ and they’re doing useless — to me, it seemed like useless — work out there,” she said.

That experience of seeing how one group of people could mistreat another group merely because of a difference in race, she said, kickstarted a social consciousness in her, exposing her to the way others live in the world.

“You’re brought up a certain way and everybody around you is brought up the same way and so that’s the normal way,” she said. “And then suddenly you see a world that’s so different. And it does make you notice.”

Routery has also been a strong advocate for women’s rights and an advocate for people with disabilities.

Many at Saturday’s party were keen to talk about Routery’s compassion and empathy for others, as well as her inquiring mind.

Gretchen Lawson, who used to run Arc of Kona, where one of Routery’s sons was a participant, met Routery 24 years ago through the organization, and said she was “probably the very best parent in the whole program.”

The two women became very close friends, she said, and said Routery is “full of joy” and finds the positive in everything.

“She’ll take on the world when she wants to,” Lawson added.

Michael Routery, Mary’s other son, said at the party that his mother “has such a strong ‘can-do’ type of personality.”

He said his mother is very magnetic and that he knows she inspires her friends in many ways, particularly in demonstrating that age is no barrier to doing things and enjoying life.

“Her spirit is so strong,” he said. “That’s something that’s very, very noticeable.”

Mary Routery’s general doctor, Scott Mandel, too remarked on how active Routery continues to be.

“She’s beyond remarkable,” he said. “She’s inspirational, I think.”

When Routery and her husband first moved to Kailua-Kona, she said, there was just a single stoplight in the area.

“It was really an outpost,” she said, “still is, to some.”

But it didn’t feel so isolated, because airfares were more relatively affordable, she said, recalling the times she could hop on a plane and go to Honolulu for lunch and come back later that day.

“And once it got so expensive to fly, I think that it changed the way a lot of us looked at living on an island,” she added.

And even at 103, Routery said she still finds moments in the world that amaze her.

Not long ago, when the sun came out after a couple days of rain and gloomy weather, Routery went out for a drive.

“So I went down, drove along Alii Drive and the ocean — it just took my breath away,” she said. “It was so beautiful; it was just so beautiful!”

With all the rain, the foliage was green and vibrant and beautiful and she asked herself how anyone could not love the world, appreciate it and want to preserve it.

“We live in a beautiful place if we slow down enough to look at it and appreciate it,” she said.

“And I think that’s one thing — being this old,” she added with a laugh — “I do.”

So what’s the challenge for today’s young people in the coming years as they find their places in the world? “I don’t know,” Routery said, “and I think that’s the exciting thing, is that we don’t know!”

She compared it to preparing for a new job, saying it’s difficult to say how to prepare given how things change.

“Your challenge then is to be able to accept change and not let it throw you,” she said. “Move forward, and accept the challenge and be ready for it.”