Rainbow Patient, 107 Years Young, Keeps on Dancing
Neoma Mathison recently celebrated her 107th birthday at Alden Estates of Jefferson.
When Neoma Mathison was born in 1914, World War I was only a few months old, a gallon of gas cost around 15 cents, women still hadn’t earned the right to vote, and the average life expectancy for women was just over 56 years old. The world has changed a lot since then, but Neoma’s warm personality and inviting smile is still the same as it’s always been. That’s what makes it easy for those who meet her to fall in love with her.
“She’s a delight, still full of life, and loves socializing,” said Rainbow Hospice Care social worker, Brian Tragash. “Neoma is so extremely sweet and personable. When she greets me, she always expresses such warmth, holding my hands tightly, and smiling broadly at me with a twinkle in her eye.”
Brian and the other members of Neoma’s Rainbow Hospice Care team, RN Case Manager Jodie Ritsch, and Certified Nursing Assistant Krista Schmidt have gotten to know Neoma pretty well over the last few months. They worked with her caregivers and staff at Alden Estates of Jefferson to organize a small party for her and to make sure her 107th birthday on November 16, would be a special one.
Last year, with COVID-19 cases climbing, Neoma’s 106th birthday celebration was limited to a window visit with her family. “It was raining and just a miserable day outside but the staff gave mom the presents we brought her and she sat and opened all her gifts and talked on the phone with everybody,” said Neoma’s daughter, Janet Kotajarvi. “We tried to make her birthday special even though we couldn’t come in.”
Neoma loves playing bingo at Alden and always seems to win at blackout bingo, where she covers all the spaces on her bingo card. So Brian contacted a local bakery, Aggie’s Specialty Cakes in Jefferson, to craft Neoma a customized cake in the shape of a bingo card, with cupcakes resembling the bingo chips. Rainbow’s volunteer department also made sure Neoma had a big stack of birthday cards to open during her party as several Rainbow volunteers and staff members filled out cards to send Neoma some happy birthday wishes. Krista also made her a big poster size happy birthday sign that she can hang in her room.
“She’s got a whole wall full of cards because she had so many I didn’t have anywhere to put them all,” Kotajarvi said. Residents and staff from Alden and Rainbow then joined in singing happy birthday to Neoma. “She seemed very happy,” Kotajarvi said. “I recorded the song that we sang to her and at the end after we said ‘how old are you?’ she shouted ‘I’m 107!’” Neoma’s daughter, Janet Kotajarvi holds Neoma’s bingo birthday cake.
Before it was time to cut the cake, Neoma was able to feel the rhythm of the music as she danced in her wheelchair to one of her favorite country songs, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” by George Strait. “At 107, she still gets a lot out of life, dancing in her wheelchair to her favorite country music and holding court at the bingo table,” Tragash said. “Neoma is definitely an inspiration to me.” Neoma’s eyesight isn’t what is used to be. When Janet took her for an eye doctor appointment after COVID restrictions lifted, they had to break the news to Neoma that her eyesight had gotten much worse and wouldn’t improve.
“It kind of brought tears to my eyes, because that’s pretty sad when you can’t see anymore,” Kotajarvi said. “She can make out shadows but can’t make out figures or features and can’t read anything, but she’s doing well especially for her age and makes the best of everything. She just seems to take everything in stride.” Neoma might be a little fuzzy on some of the details of her childhood, but a lot has happened in the last 107 years. Neoma Crandell, the youngest of five children, was born and raised in Eau Claire. That’s where she met and married the love of her life, Ed Mathison in 1934, and went on to raise three children, Nancy, Jim, and Janet. Before she devoted her life to being a full-time mother and housewife, Neoma worked for the Gillette Safety Tire Company (Uniroyal) in Eau Claire. During World War II, the tire plant transformed into an ammunition factory, and Neoma’s job was to pluck out the bad bullets.
Ed’s job with Western Union moved the family to Minnesota and Milwaukee. He first started working for them as a teenager delivering telegrams on a bicycle and stayed with the company until he retired. “He worked on the train with President Truman and did telegraphy for the news station and the newspaper,” Kotajarvi said. “He did telegraphy for Milwaukee Braves games and worked in the press box. He knew Hank Aaron and Willie Mays and all those guys.”
Eventually, Neoma and Ed relocated back to Eau Claire and finally to Jefferson to be closer to family. Ed died in May 2001 and her daughter Nancy passed away in 2006. Janet was happy she could be there with her mom to celebrate her birthday, which made the day extra special. Neoma’s son Jim couldn’t be there for the Alden party on Tuesday but was there for Neoma’s big celebration at Janet’s daughter’s house the Sunday before.
“The whole family sang that same song to her on Sunday and after it was over she said, ‘I’m 69 years old.’ Kotajarvi said. “Everybody laughed. I said 69? And she said ‘no, 107.’” Janet remembers her mom being a great bowler who won trophies with her bowling team. Neoma also enjoyed riding horses when she had a chance. She takes pride in her appearance and has an eye for fashion and can often be seen all decked out in her favorite necklaces. Neoma also has a sweet tooth and loves her cookies, chocolates, and wintergreen flavored lifesavers. “She says the secret to living to 107 is a cookie and cake every day,” said Rainbow CNA, Krista Schmidt.
But Neoma’s first love was dancing and she would dance every chance she got. There was a time when Neoma danced all day and all night. Actually, it was 52 days continuously. In October 1933, Neoma and her late brother Lester decided to enter a dance contest, called a “Walkathon” at Fournier’s Hall in Eau Claire.
They competed against 32 other couples from across the country. Couples had to stay in motion for 45 minutes out of every hour for 24 hours a day. Newspapers advertised the contest as something “startling, different, and thrilling, and new entertainment.”
A miniature stadium was also constructed inside the hall with bleachers to accommodate the 1,500 spectators who would pay anywhere from 15 to 40 cents to cheer on their favorite couple and witness the latest craze. The walkathon event became so popular the local radio station WTAQ hosted a live broadcast twice a day directly from the contest floor. Besides dancing, the contestants were also allowed to walk. During the short rest periods, contestants had a cot available for a quick nap and could fuel up on food with regular meals available from a cook in a nearby kitchen. Nurses and doctors were also onsite to monitor the contestants’ health and to attend to anyone with physical exhaustion.
Eventually, when it was down to a few couples, organizers shortened and eliminated some of the rest periods to try and conclude the event faster. Lester and Neoma went eight days with next to no sleep. “Mom said ‘we just kept moving.’ Kotajarvi said. “Whether it looked like they were dancing or not they had to rest on each other’s shoulders and just keep moving. They couldn’t stop. They would watch some people drop off because they couldn’t do it anymore.”
Finally on December 4, after seven weeks and 1,200 hours later the brother and sister team of Neoma and Russell were the last ones standing and declared the walkathon winners. They walked away with a $1,000 prize, which was a pretty big sum of money in those days. A victory ball was held the following night in their honor. Neoma has some pictures from that time in her room at Alden that serve as a memento of some fond childhood memories.
When she’s in the mood, you’ll see Neoma dancing a little in her wheelchair, just like she did on her birthday. Even at 107 years old, Neoma has never stopped dancing. “Oh yeah, she takes her arms and goes back and forth and wiggles a little bit to the music,” Kotajarvi said.