MANSFIELD — Eileen Fallon didn’t have anything to wish for as she blew out the candles on her birthday cake. She looked around at the staff and residents of Primrose Retirement Community, all smiling and blowing party horns, and decided she had everything she needed.
“I’ve got all these wonderful people I get to celebrate with,” the 104-year-old said. “What more could I wish for?”
While she appreciated the party and those who came to celebrate, Fallon was far less impressed with her age than the people around her.
“I don’t know why it’s such a big deal,” she mused.
Fallon was born in 1918 and grew up in Columbus. Her father was a plumber and her grandparents were farmers.
Fallon described her childhood as ordinary, but she can still remember seeing headlines and hearing worried conversations during “the crash of 29.”
“It was a shock to everybody," she said. “Even the rich people couldn’t get their money out of the bank because Roosevelt came in and he closed the banks down.”
While her family fared relatively well amidst the Great Depression, the economic downturn meant she couldn’t follow her dream of attending college and becoming a nurse. She graduated high school at 16 and began waiting tables at a restaurant. She married her first husband, Kenneth Hoehn, and started working as an assistant at a dental office.
When World War II broke out, Eileen’s husband, brothers, sister and brother-in-law all joined the military.
“I wanted to go so bad, but they wouldn’t take me because I had a child that was 2 years old,” she said.
Instead, the dentist she worked for convinced her to further her education.
“He said, ‘I’ve taught you everything I can teach you. You ought to be a dental hygienist,’” Eileen recalled. “I said, ‘What on earth is that?’ ”
She thought it over and decided it made sense.
“While (Kenneth) was gone, I decided I should go to school. What would I do if he was killed?” she said.
She joined the fledgling dental hygiene program at the Ohio State University and became part of its first graduating class. She’s been a dedicated Buckeye ever since.
“She’s fanatical about Ohio State football,” her son Miles Hoehn said. “She’s got to watch every game.”
When she was 97, Hoehn arranged to take his mother back to Ohio State to visit the dental hygiene program. Students, teachers and even the dean of the dentistry program welcomed her, asking for stories about her career.
“I told them all about what dentistry was like years ago, when you had to pump the chair up like the barbers do,” she said. “We didn’t have automatic water. We had to squirt water with a syringe in their mouth.”
The ultimate highlight of the visit, however, was when the dean of the dental college invited Eileen and Hoehn to join his and his wife for the big game in the president’s lounge.
“That was a big thrill for me,” she recalled with a girlish giggle. “You look right down on the football field.”
After the war, Eileen and her husband welcomed three more children. She took great joy in her family and her career.
“When we’d go out to play, she’d always say ‘Break an arm or leg but don’t break your teeth,’” Miles recalled.
In the early 1970s, she and Kenneth moved to North Carolina so she could take a job teaching dental hygiene at the Fayetteville Technical Institute. She went on to earn her bachelor’s in biology from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and studied adult education back in Ohio.
“I was teaching adults, but I wanted a degree to go with it,” she said. “I thought that you should keep learning. I was always inquisitive about anything and everything and then I wanted to go on further.”
Eileen continued cleaning teeth into her early 70s. Educating others on how to stay healthy made it a rewarding career.
“People didn't used to brush their teeth; they didn't know you should,” she said. “Dental hygiene brought that to the knowledge of everybody.
“A hygienist’s job is to teach, even if they’re working on the patient. All the time you should educate that patient so they don’t come back.”
A month after retiring, Eileen's first husband died of a heart attack. They had been married 42 years.
Rather than continue attending church alone, she began attending services at her daughter's church. She joined her new church's choir and met her second husband Denis Fallon. They married a few years later.
“He was a wonderful person too. We were married 31 more years," she said. “I missed my first husband, but I couldn’t bring him back and I was young.
“There’s no place in the Bible that says you should grieve for the rest of your life. In fact, it says you must go on.”
Eileen and Denis stayed active in their golden years, joining the Friendship Force and traveling around the globe. Their travels spanned from England to Israel to New Zealand. They also camped in all 48 continental United States.
“I love to travel. You learn about other people and I never stopped learning," she said.
"I think the answer to world peace surely must be education. If the whole world were educated more about the rest of the world — people are different from us. You don't want to fight each other because they're different and that's what we're doing.”
It's a lesson she has to repeat to her own children on occasion. A self-declared political independent, she often gets frustrated when she sees others fighting about the issues without hearing each other out.
"You have no right to judge unless you know both sides," she said.
Fallon has four children, six grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren. Her oldest great granddaughter recently got married.
"If she has a baby, I'll be a great great grandmother," Fallon said with a fake shudder.
“It’s not that I hate it — it just seems old. I don’t feel old.”
Eileen said she has no secret advice to living a long life.
“I’ve never been on a diet in my life. I've never smoked," she said. "I just ate what was available and worked hard."
She thought about it for a moment, then offered one piece of wisdom — enjoy all things in moderation.
"I’m not against a glass of wine with dinner," she said. "Your whole meal tastes better with a glass of red wine."
While she's seen plenty change in her 104 years, she said not all changes have been bad ones.
"Medicine has come so far," she said. “The changes they have made are out of this world.”
Fallon hopes to be around to see even more changes.
“I'm not afraid to die,” she said. “I don't want to, of course, because I just want to hang around. I want to see what's happening. But if I do, I have surely had enough – an exciting life.”