100 and still cute as a button

Ohio centenarian a 'true inspiration' to members of the Akron Button Club

Jewell Cardwell / Akron Beacon Journal /

Published Jul 26, 2013 at 05:00AM

AKRON, Ohio — Affable, refined and ever the fashion maven, Peggy Irene Harry has long been admired by her many diverse attachments: family and friends, as well as her fellow residents and staff at The Merriman, an assisted living facility in Akron.

And the fresh inductee into the centenarian club — she turned 100 on Monday — is quite the doyenne of still other attachments: namely buttons.

Peg, as she prefers, is a longtime member of the Akron Button Club and the National Button Society.

On a recent Monday morning at the monthly meeting of the local club, which convenes at Akron’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, not surprisingly, she was being toasted by fellow members.

Peg — a 48-year collector — like the other members, is very button-specific. Hers are the highly treasured, pierced/carved iridescent white buttons known as “Bethlehem” and “Jordan” pearls. “They look just like lace,” she explained, joie de vivre percolating in her voice.

Member Liz Vernon, of Akron, even baked button-shaped shortbread cookies to celebrate the pretty-in-pink Peg, for the way she has threaded her way into their lives and helped to get them even more hooked in their hobby of collecting these miniature works of art.

“Miss Peg is a true inspiration,” said 15-year member Vernon. “She had pneumonia and the flu in December, then a bad sinus infection. But she bounced back ... She’s the most caring and sharing person you would ever want to meet.”

Asked about her secret to a long and healthy life, Peg — who relies on a walker for safety — didn’t hold back:

“I exercise every day in my room. I wouldn’t miss it! It really does help me keep going ... But I think it’s also in my genes.”

Widowed in 1988, the stay-at-home mother and former Akron schoolteacher said she got hooked on collecting after discovering her grandmother’s button box.

She formerly maintained collections of thimbles, stamps and handkerchiefs, and head-turning gardens of peonies that were prized, cut and dried for bouquets.

Arriving later in the month to celebrate her milestone birthday will be her daughter, Dr. Betty Tarnowski of Charleston, S.C., a cancer specialist with the National Institutes of Health; two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Make no mistake about it, Peg Harry plans to commemorate her birthday all month long.

“It’s never too early to celebrate your 100th birthday!” she opined.

Her fellow button club members — who brought lots of party fixings for the occasion — couldn’t have agreed more.

Early in line to wish the honoree well was Charlene Baker, of Gates Mills, who is as committed to the hobby and the club as anyone other than perhaps Peg.

“Peg embodies the spirit of Button Club collectors: generosity, enthusiasm and knowledge,” Baker noted, adding, “I come in any kind of weather like the mailman. I love this club.”

Baker was forever linked with button collecting when she visited a dress shop and eyed a display case of bracelets made from the most gorgeous buttons you would ever want to see.

Soon after that, she found herself popping open her grandmother’s tin filled with buttons of all pedigrees: “I ended up making bracelets for Christmas (for several female relatives). Each told a different story. I used Daddy’s Army buttons on one, and the buttons on the outfit my mother wore to the hospital when she delivered us.”

Baker — who donned a button ring from Zambia — seemed to echo the sentiments of other members when she exclaimed, “You can never be too absurd when it comes to buttons. This really is a cool hobby!”

“Little Peg,” she continued, “is so dear to us and to the next generation of collectors.”

The beauty of the Akron Button Club, as one member pointed out, is in the dissimilarity of tastes as it has some members who snap up plastic buttons that cost as little as 50 cents apiece while others’ investments are more exotic and can go into the hundreds of dollars.

Several members plan to make the trip to Appleton, Wis., in August for the National Button Society’s “Diamond Jubilee” convention and competition.

Vernon — a longtime collector of antiques and many things sewing-related — got hooked on buttons some 19 years ago while attending an estate sale in Hudson, Ohio, where the entire contents of a general store were up for grabs. “I purchased all of the buttons there. I wrote the biggest check I’ve ever written in my life.”

When she did get around to joining the Akron Button Club, Vernon said it afforded her not only a priceless education on a subject she’d come to love, but also many priceless friendships along the way.

“Collecting buttons is the story of history in miniature and craftsmanship,” she said. “It dates back to George Washington’s inaugural buttons at the First Continental Congress ... So, we’re just not here playing with buttons.”