WEST JORDAN — Mary Kawakami has shared many happy days in her long life.
In her 102 years, Kawakami has operated her own business, become a nationally renowned hairdresser, met a sitting president and raised a happy family. She never seemed to stop smiling as she teased her three granddaughters over lunch Friday at an annual event celebrating Utah's centenarians, the state's "most exclusive club."
"I lost part of my voice and part of my hearing, but I haven't lost any appetite," said Kawakami, who says her secret to longevity is wiggling, laughing and singing to keep her body moving and her spirits high.
Kawakami looks forward to the event "for the social part" of the annual Centenarian Celebration luncheon each year, trading stories with her family and other people she meets and complimenting Gov. Gary Herbert as "the best governor in the country."
"But you look around and you see who's missing," she adds offhand, noting that her days, while happy, will inevitably close.
Herbert — accompanied by his wife, Jeannette, as well as Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and his wife, Abby — shared warm handshakes and fond memories among the 55 centenarians and their families who attended the event at Viridian Event Center in West Jordan on Friday. Utah currently has 145 residents who are 100 years old or older.
Herbert called the annual event one of the highlights of his year.
"They've got something to share," Herbert said of the Centenarian Club. "Their sense of humor, their optimism, their hope, their experience is remarkable."
Herbert especially complimented the generation's ideals of frugality and self-reliance as a legacy that will benefit the state.
Herbert and his wife dined with the oldest woman in the group, 106-year-old Beatrice Payne of Provo, who went on to inform the governor that she is, in fact, 106 and a half.
The oldest male centenarian, Evgeni Safanov of Salt Lake County, is also 106.
Reed Brinton, of Salt Lake City, celebrated his 100th birthday last month and attended the centenarian event for the first time Friday. Though he was full of jokes ("If it weren't for my old age, I'd be dead"), the well-traveled Utahn said he enjoyed sharing some of his life's experiences with the people he met at the luncheon, including talking to the lieutenant governor about his memories growing up in Fairview.
"I think for the governor to recognize all of us is a significant thing, it's become something of a milestone for me," said Brinton, who was joined by his son for the occasion.
After a lifetime of learning, Brinton said his advice to Utahns is simple: Kindness brings happiness.
"Just living, just being here and being part of it, that's what it's all about," Brinton said. "Be courteous, kind, thoughtful, and have a sense of humor. Find some way of keeping the conversation light and to not take yourself too seriously."
Brinton teased, "I hope to be anywhere next year," but especially at the centenarian event.
Herbert said he urges Utahns of all ages to spend time with some of the state's senior residents, whom he says should be applauded for shaping their families and communities.
"Have them tell you a little about their lives, their life experiences, what their hopes and dreams were and what their hopes are now for their posterity," Herbert said. "You'll find a very enjoyable period of time, spend an hour or two with them, and listen and learn."
Biographies and stories from Utah's centenarians are published in a yearbook on the Department of Aging and Adult Services website.