When 104-year-old Cliff Pedersen was born, Woodrow Wilson was president, and women were not yet allowed to vote.
The spry Seal Beach, California, war veteran is a walking chronicle of information and experience, a man who has witnessed a lifetime of the tragedies and triumphs that make for a breathtaking compilation of the history-making moments that have come to define the world we know today.
Pedersen was celebrated on July 21 during a birthday party thrown by his friends at Easterseals, Southern California’s new Senior Day Services Center in Brea, which he visits two days per week. He helps lead weekly exercise classes and dancing at the center. He even organized a beer-tasting this past April for National Beer Day—his favorite brew is Allagash—during which he danced the “Beer Barrel Polka.”
Although his age has reached triple-digits, Pederson isn’t finished yet. He still has a bucket list.
A lot has happened in the world since the day Pedersen was born in the remote town of Lincoln, Massachusetts, in 1917 to immigrant parents from Denmark and Canada. He has witnessed 19 U.S. presidencies, recalls the 1921 debut of the Miss America Pageant, read the headlines when Charles Lindbergh crossed the ocean in 1927, and did so again when Amelia Earhart did it in 1928.
Pedersen saw prohibition come and go between 1924 and 1933, lived through The Great Depression from 1929 to 1933, and saw the “New Deal” launched by FDR in 1933, which lasted until 1939.
Pedersen remembers the Hindenburg crashing in 1937 and the first hydrogen bomb dropping in 1952. By 1954, the civil rights movement was underway, and Elvis Presley was shaking up the world of music.
He ate his first McDonald’s hamburger in 1955 and watched a man walk on the moon in 1969. He listened as The Beatles stole America’s heart in 1964 and cheered the first Super Bowl in 1967. He recalls the Berlin Wall falling in 1989 and lived through his second global pandemic in 2020, after surviving the Spanish flu of 1918.
One of five siblings, Pedersen started working on a vegetable farm when he was only 10, earning $7.50 per week. He gave his mom $5 each week and kept the rest to spend on his own clothes and recreation. He worked on the farm until he graduated from high school, by then having worked up to a hefty wage of $3 per day.
After enlisting in the Air Force in 1942, Pedersen was shipped off to Europe aboard the Queen Mary, which was operating as a mine sweeper at the time. A harrowing accident aboard the ship resulted in more than 1,000 casualties, causing extensive damage to the bow of the huge vessel. Pedersen was one of the few survivors of the incident, and he went on to become a gunner on a swift P38 fighter plane.
After the war, Pedersen attended Boston College, married, and went on to have four children. In 1947, he landed a solid position with the Hood Milk Company, where he worked until his retirement at age 62. In 1981, he moved to California to be closer to his two daughters.
“My favorite president was Franklin Roosevelt, FDR,” Pedersen said. “I was with him when he declared war on both Germany and Japan. One of the most important things is that he put in social security and Medicare. For many years, there have been so many people in our country who depend on those things.
“There were two things I wanted to see: a black president and a woman president. So I’m halfway there.”
Never Too Late to Dance and Drink
The Brea Center, which Pedersen frequents, opened in February 2020, just weeks before the pandemic shutdown. It has since reopened to serve the local community of seniors with disabilities.
One of his biggest fans and advocates said Pedersen is part of the fabric of the center.
“He’s just so full of life, and he’s touched so many people’s lives,” center director Kelly Phillips said.
Pedersen lives independently at his home in Seal Beach, despite being legally blind. When asked about his longevity, Pedersen said he believes in living a balanced life.
“There’s two parts, mental and physical. I think you have to have both,” he said.
“There should be daily exercise of some type, some kind of motion. And on the mental part, you should be doing all kinds of trivia, crossword puzzles, word jumbles, whatever it takes to keep your mind continually working.”
Bucket List Honesty
When asked what’s next on his bucket list, Pedersen said he still wants to go skydiving, despite protests from friends and family.
“Well, what I want to do, no one will let me. I want to skydive,” he said. “I’ve wanted to do it many times, even my wife and my daughter stopped me from doing it. I still think I can do it, but they still won’t let me.”
Pedersen said candidly that if he gets the chance, he’ll jump solo—not like the senior George Bush, who last jumped on his 85th birthday.
“He did it the wrong way. He was tied to somebody,” Pedersen said.
Asked what he wished for when he blew out his candles, Pedersen says he’s wishing for one more good year.
“I want to be 105.”
Cake eaten and memories shared, Pedersen finished the day by sharing his best advice when it comes to living for more than a century.
“Have honesty in everything,” he said.