Hilda Richards, now on the cusp of 103, married Paul Richards on April 18, 1948. (Photo/Courtesy Richards)
Hilda Richards, now on the cusp of 103, married Paul Richards on April 18, 1948. (Photo/Courtesy Richards)

Party on! How this 102-year-old San Franciscan keeps busy and stays optimistic

For her 100th birthday, Hilda Richards hosted a party for 72 friends and family members. “It was all we could seat,” she said. There was wine, hors d’oeuvres and a sit-down dinner at the Sequoias retirement community in San Francisco, where Richards has lived for 25 years.

She also had parties for her 101st and 102nd birthdays, and had hoped to celebrate her 103rd on Nov. 21 in similar fashion. Unfortunately, she said, the coronavirus has quashed that idea.

The virus also has stopped Richards from meeting up with her many friends and extended family, and from getting out and about. But it hasn’t stopped her from talking on the phone or FaceTiming with others, or from using the computer or tending her plants. “I try to keep busy,” said Richards, who uses a walker to get around.

And though she admittedly naps a lot (“which I consider a waste of time”) and apologizes because “I don’t remember names so well,” she recalls with clarity the many memorable moments of her life.

Hilda Richards at home in San Francisco. (Photo/Courtesy Richards)
Hilda Richards at home in San Francisco. (Photo/Courtesy Hilda Richards)

Like coming to America from her native Germany in 1938 at the age of 20. “I came by myself,” she said. “My sister lived in San Francisco. She had come two years earlier. The only thing that my parents were able to do under the rules of the government was to buy me a ticket to go by freighter. … I came with $10.”

Richards moved in with her sister. “Three weeks later, I fell and broke my ankle.” They had no money to pay for medical care, but “this wonderful doctor came to the house and he paid for everything,” even crutches, she said. He, too, was Jewish, and knew she was a refugee from Nazi Germany.

Eventually, Richards’ parents were able to join their two daughters in San Francisco.

It was through her parents that she met her husband, Paul.

“That’s a long story,” she said.

The short version: “Whoever they introduced me to was unbelievable,” she said dismissively. “I finally said, OK already” to their renewed badgering, and agreed to have dinner with Paul, who’d come to California after eight difficult years living in Shanghai. Soon after their get-together, they ran into each other at a Jewish organizational event, he asked for a date, and on that date asked Hilda to marry him.

She said she needed time to think. A few weeks later, she said yes.

“Believe it or not— that was in February 1948 — we married in April of that same year.”

Paul Richards died in 2006 at 92. The couple had no children, but Hilda remains close with her late sister’s family.

Hilda Richards was invited onstage during a performance of Beach Blanket Babylon to which she was invited for a birthday celebration.
Hilda Richards was invited onstage during a performance of “Beach Blanket Babylon” for her birthday celebration.

She also retains strong ties with longtime friends, such as Marin County resident Tobi Rubin.

Rubin worked for years for Jewish communal organizations and met Richards through their involvement with Israel’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center. Richards not only supported Shaare Zedek (“I was on the international board of governors in charge of local activities,” she noted), but also volunteered with Jewish Family and Children’s Services and was an active member of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco.

“We stayed friends all these years,” Rubin said. “We mean a lot to each other.”

She continued: “[Hilda] drove until about eight years ago,” took classes in sculpture at the JCC and “is very adept at all kinds of things. … She made Rosh Hashanah cards on the computer, and was always the one organizing Hanukkah parties and Shabbat dinners” at the Sequoias.

Richards worked for 23 years at the S.F.-based clothing company Koret of California. “I was in charge of distribution of merchandise, including during the beginning of computer work. It was very exciting,” she said.

She began taking arts classes in retirement (“I loved making pottery,” she said) and crafted all sorts of items, including a wall clock (“it works, by the way”) and a “whole zoo of animals.”

She tried painting, too. “That was a big disaster. I couldn’t come up with any thoughts of what I wanted to do!”

Richards offers no secret formula for how to live such a long, vibrant life. “The only thing I can say is, No. 1, both my parents lived to their 90s.”

Beyond that, “I am definitely an optimist, and I think that has helped me very much.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.