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Supercentenarian a witness to history during three centuries

SALT LAKE CITY — Cleo Cranney Hinckley is a remarkable individual, a link between three centuries and a living museum piece.

On her 110th birthday on Oct. 13, her name was added to a select list known as "supercentenarians," those who defy the actuarial tables of life expectancy and live to an extreme old age. Supercentenarian researcher Robert Young estimated that there may be as many as 150 such supercentenarians in the United States, but of those, fewer than 25 are documented. Life expectancy for females was about 48 years when she was born, and she has more than doubled that to become, statistically, one in 2 million.

But her life is less of a statistic than a link to the past. She was born in 1890, the sixth child of Willard Duane Cranney, a pioneer who crossed the plains at age 14 in 1862. Her mother, Hattie Woolf Cranney, died in childbirth, a tragedy that occurred all too often during the 19th century.

Cleo married Parnell Hinckley, a first cousin of President Gordon B. Hinckley, shortly after he returned from serving in World War I. She became a widow in 1984 when her husband died at age 95. The family remembers President Hinckley coming to give their father a blessing after Parnell suffered a stroke in 1983.

Cleo was born in Logan, Utah, a few weeks before the last major conflict between U.S. troops and Indians at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1890, when Benjamin Harrison was president of the United States. She was 3 when the Salt Lake Temple was dedicated by President Wilford Woodruff.

Sister Hinckley, who lost her ability to speak a few months ago, is not able to comment on these and other world events, but her daughters and grandchildren related experiences she told many times. These experiences shed insight into the pioneer era.

Christmas seemed to be a time she remembered particularly well. She said that when she was a child the Sunday School held a Christmas party in afternoon, and the Primary held another party in the evening. When she was about 5, Cleo and her little sister Claire went to the Primary party where the children held hands and sang Christmas carols. Afterwards, each was given a sack of hardtack candy, said Cleo Hinckley Eliason of Deseret, Utah, a daughter.

"Cleo said she wanted her candy to last a long time, but Claire said she had eaten all of hers. So Cleo ate her candy on the way home. When they reached home, Claire took out a sack of candy she had saved, saying she had been given two sacks of candy. Cleo called her a liar. Her mother heard her use that word, and washed her mouth out with soap."

The girls had an uncle who operated a store, Cornforth's Novelties, in Salt Lake City. He gave the girls a present from the store's left overs each year. One year, before Cleo was 6, Uncle Corny gave her a large stuffed calico cat and Claire a doll with braids. Claire later lost her doll in the alfalfa field and was very sad, so their mother offered to cut up the large calico cat and make a small cushions for each of the girls and their younger sister. Cleo agreed to this, and so it was done. Then men harvesting the alfalfa field found the doll with braids and Claire had her toy back. But Cleo grieved for her large, stuffed calico cat that was now three cushions.

That fall, in 1896, their mother died in childbirth. So the three youngest girls went to live with their grandmother nearby. The following Christmas, their grandmother wanted to knit mufflers and mittens for them. She left Cleo in charge and instructed her not to play with the lighted coal oil lamp on the buffet.

"Cleo would never have thought of touching the lamp, but now she wanted to," said Sister Eliason. "She climbed on a chair and lifted it down. They all enjoyed watching its flames flickering. But it was heavy because it was full of coal oil. As Cleo tried to put it back, her little arms trembled. She was scared, but she used all the strength she had to put it back safely. It taught her a lesson about minding her grandmother."

A few years later, Cleo went to stay with relatives in Canada but returned because of homesickness. "There is no sickness like homesickness," she said.

Duane Cranney remarried but his daughters did not get along with his new wife. So the teens moved out and rented a home, working at a bank to pay the rent. Cleo graduated from West High as the top student in the business class, adept at shorthand. Her father wanted her to go to Idaho to cook for her brothers on a potato farm, but she chose to go to Los Angeles, Calif., instead, with a friend and her mother. She found work and was doing well, but her father worried about her, said her daughter Harriet Hinckley Eliason of Delta, Utah.

"Her father was very concerned about her so he asked if they would call her on a mission so he wouldn't have to worry about her so much. She was pleased with the calling, which came in 1912."

While on her mission, she helped as many Mormon refugees from Mexico arrived in Los Angeles. In Primary, she taught a red-headed, freckle-faced lad, Marion G. Romney, later first counselor in the First Presidency.

After her mission, she met and became engaged to the brother of one of her missionary companions but as the Great War [World War I] began, he was called to military service. She refused to marry until after the war, saying she was too young to be a war widow. She went to Utah Agricultural College and took courses. She became secretary to the president of the college, and was there when Parnell Hinckley returned. He returned home unannounced and surprised her in a hallway; she "was very flustered" by her own account. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple in 1919.

The young couple moved to Millard County. "It was a drudge," she is quoted by Marjorie Hinckley McEntire, a granddaughter. "It was so hot and windy she couldn't even get weeds to grow, and the whole place dried up and blew away so we had to move." After some moving around, they settled in Salt Lake City.

"Those days were almost like pioneer days," said Harriet Eliason. "Father wanted a farm so we would learn how to work. We had an acre and a half of fruit trees. We had chickens and milk cows. We helped with all of the food and some of the money by selling milk." The soil was so rich that the large carrots they raised and sold were called "Parnell's gold."

The children remember that Sister Hinckley baked about six loaves of bread in the mornings. They also remember that she was on the Granite Stake Relief Society board for many years. She never learned to drive a car, but once did fly on an airplane. She continues to be an avid reader of the Ensign and Time magazines. On her hundredth birthday, remembers Sister McEntire, "Grandmother told me, 'Don't ever get this old — it is no fun!' "

Today, Sister Hinckley is bedfast, a prisoner of an aged body. She prefers her meals to be served punctually on the hour, and to go to bed at the same time each night. Her grandchildren, some of her 130-plus descendants, shop for her and shower lots of love and attention on her, said Harriet Eliason.

The supercentenarian cannot speak, but her large dark eyes, amplified by her glasses, are filled with feeling. Her hands are wrinkled and soft, with a strong grip that expresses the emotion she cannot voice about all those experiences and all those years that have come and gone.

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