NEW ULM, MINN. – No queen of the Rose Bowl has ever had a better parade than the one Erna Zahn had Tuesday.
For 20 minutes, Zahn waved and blew kisses as dozens of cars and trucks rolled by her window at the Oak Hills Living Center in this southern Minnesota city.
It was the biggest surprise of her life, she said afterward — which is quite a statement, considering that it was her 112th birthday.
Zahn, the oldest living Minnesotan, was celebrated by friends and family, including a large assortment of her six children, 23 grandchildren, 50 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
From vehicles festooned with balloons and signs came shouts of, “We love you, Grandma!” as five police cars with flashing lights led the way.
The outdoor birthday celebration was forced by the novel coronavirus pandemic, which forced a ban on visitors to the nursing home where Zahn has lived for the past three years.
But her spirit was reflected in one sign that read, “Erna 112 > COVID-19.”
“My gosh, she loved it!” said Cindee Krzmarzick, Oak Hills’ enrichment coordinator, who organized the parade and sat at Zahn’s side during the procession. “She kept saying she was overwhelmed.”
Zahn is sharp and recognized everyone in the parade, Krzmarzick said: “She’s incredible. She’s an inspiration to us all.”
Zahn was unavailable for an interview because she’s hard of hearing and telephone calls are difficult for her.
Her daughter, 78-year-old Marley Kuckhahn, called it a lovely event, though not the same as celebrating in person.
“I haven’t been able to give her a hug since March 10,” Kuckhahn said. “That’s the last time I saw her that wasn’t through a glass. That’s the hard part.”
The family had planned to take Zahn to a new coffee shop in neighboring Sleepy Eye for coffee and pie, and some relatives from Wisconsin were planning to make the trip. But they hope to have their family celebration later.
According to the nursing home, Zahn is the 15th-oldest living American and No. 55 in the world. And she’s proud of it.
“She said this morning, ‘I want the whole world to know that I’m the oldest living Minnesotan!’ ” Krzmarzick said.
Zahn is full of spunk and has a lively sense of humor, she added. The nursing home has a weekly Friday afternoon social hour, where Zahn has a single glass of red wine.
Asked recently if she’d like a second glass, she said, “The last time I had two glasses of wine, I had a lampshade on my head!”
Born in Wisconsin, Zahn moved here with her late husband, Meilahn, who chaired the music department at Martin Luther College in New Ulm. Widowed in 1982, she lived in her house until age 96, shoveling her own snow and mowing her own lawn.
Then she lived in her own apartment until she was 109.
She loves coffee, chocolate, ice cream and extra-sharp Cheddar cheese. Befitting a Wisconsin farm girl, she insists that her cheese “has to have a snap to it.”
Zahn’s secret to longevity is simple, according to those who know her: eating a good breakfast.
After the parade, Zahn planned to celebrate not with a birthday cake, but with apple pie and Cheddar cheese.
But it’s unlikely the cheese will have as much snap as the birthday girl.