Beyond Vassar

An Apple a Day

By Peter Bronski

Mary Virginia Steck Kern ’34 celebrated her 100th birthday this year. She shares some of the secrets to her longevity.

Born on a Virginia apple orchard in August 1912, it is only fitting that Mary Virginia Steck Kern ’34 became an early—and lifelong—vegetarian. Later, demonstrating that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree (or the family orchard), she studied plant physiology at Vassar, intending to eventually manage Greenwood Fruit Farm, the apple orchard her parents founded outside the town of Winchester. 

Motherhood and a passion for community service called her in other directions, however. She served on committees at Winchester’s First Presbyterian Church, with the American Red Cross during World War II, and—returning to her roots—became involved with the Old Time Apple Growers Association of Winchester. She also was an accomplished writer and editor.

On her hundredth birthday, on August 12, three-dozen members of her family tree gathered in Williamsburg to celebrate the momentous occasion. Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, senator Mark Warner, and even President Obama sent their best wishes to “Chi-Chi,” as she’s known to family and friends.

Nearly eight decades removed from her alma mater, Kern received a cherished Vassar College blanket, courtesy of the Office of Alumnae/i Affairs and Development, as part of the festivities.

What are the secrets to her longevity? Kern credits her vegetarian diet, her abstention from alcohol, her happiness (“Be happy,” she says. “I’m very happy in everything I do.”), and perhaps a bit of divine intervention. “When I was 96, I asked the Lord if I could have four more years so that I could be 100,” she says, “and he told me I could.”