By Igor Studenkov | For the Bugle
When Yetta (nee Zabrin) Hirschenbein was born, the Village of Niles has only been around for 18 years.
Telephones were still a relative novelty, with the village hall installing one a year earlier. Its population was under 600. Niles didn’t have any parks or a library, and the village landmarks – the Leaning Tower of Niles, the Golf Mill Shopping Center – were still decades away. But Milwaukee Avenue was already a major thoroughfare. The streetcar line ran down the middle of it, and more and more cars rode down it every year – to the point that the village had to impose its very first speed limit.
One hundred years later, Hirschenbein celebrated her birthday at Brookdale Niles retirement home. She told the Bugle that, while she didn’t particularly like thinking about how old she was, she was delighted to be able to celebrate it, and humbled by all of the kindness and good cheer she got from fellow residents and staff.
A daughter of immigrants from what is now Latvia, Hirschenbein was born in Chicago on July 4, 1917. As she mentioned to the Bugle, as a little girl, she used to think that the fireworks were for her. As she got older, she found that she really enjoyed school – to the point that she was sad during summer break because she missed her classes. She attended John Marshall High School, in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood. She attended University of Chicago to get a medical degree but ultimately didn’t complete it because, as her family explained, she discovered she couldn’t stand the smell of formaldehyde
on Oct. 6, 1946, she married Irwin Hirschenbein, a man she still considers the love of her life. The couple met on a blind date her cousins set up. Together, they moved to Deerfield Beach, Fla., where they lived for 31 years. During that time, she worked as an office assistant. The couple traveled extensively, traveling to Spain, Italy, North Africa and Venezuela, among other destinations.
Since then, her husband passed away, and she moved to Brookdale Niles in 2010.
While Hirschenbein’s actual birthday was July 4, the celebration took place on July 26. All seniors and staff in the building were invited. The celebration started with a short presentation by Marie Gurnik, the facility’s executive director, gave an overview of Hirschenbein’s life, while showing pictures of her over the decades. Deirdre Alcantara, Brookdale’s resident services directory, shared some trivia about what happened in 1917 – noting, for example, that this was the year the first Boeing aircraft flew – as well as how much things cost at the time.
Niles Mayor Andrew Przybylo congratulated Hirschenbein, mentioning that he had a brief conversation with her before the festivities.
“I decided to do my civic duty and offer her a job at the Village of Niles,” he quipped. “And you know what she said? ‘ I’m going to hold you to it.’”
The staff then made her blow out the candles on the cake.
“I can’t believe it,” Hirschenbein said. “All this for me.”
Nancy and Mary Zabrin, Hirschenbein’s nieces-in-law, represented the family at the celebration – and they had nothing but good things to say about their aunt-in-law.
“Goodness gracious, she’s just an amazing lady,” Nancy Zabrin said. “There’s nothing she never had an opinion on. And everybody loves her, she’s a very strong, wonderful person.”
“She’s one of a kind, that’s for sure,” Mary Zabrin said.
Hirschenbein had to use a wheelchair to get around, but she could still remember as far back as her third birthday.
When asked what her favorite memory was, she said that it was her 50th wedding anniversary celebration.
Did she ever image celebrating her 100th birthday?
“Not in my wildest dreams,” Hirschenbein said.
As those gathered enjoyed the pieces of cake, Gurnik said that it was a great celebration.
“It’s wonderful to be able to celebrate a 100th birthday of someone who’s so upbeat and alert,” she said. “[Hirschenbein] was up at 4:30 in the morning to get her hair done.”
Alcantara, said that a 100th birthday celebration was a first for Brookdale Niles, but some seniors were getting close.
“Next year, we will have four,” she said.