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100-year-old Wilmette woman dies after condo fire

Opal Reifenberg who was 100 years old died after fire her Wilmette condo early Saturday. She worked five days week

Opal Reifenberg, who was 100 years old, died after a fire at her Wilmette condo early Saturday. She worked five days a week at the Wilmette Public Library. | provided photo

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Updated: August 23, 2013 6:29AM

Born in the year the Titanic sank, Opal Reifenberg lived long enough to see a world her parents could scarcely have imagined.

Even at 100, she was happily working five days a week — a familiar face to her neighbors in north suburban Wilmette, where she walked a mile every day.

But the fiercely independent grandmother’s life came to a sad end Saturday morning after a fire at her condominium.

The blaze started just before 3 a.m. in the living room of her second-floor condo in the 600 block of Ridge Road, according to the Wilmette Fire Department. Reifenberg was in her bedroom, but she wasn’t able to escape, and she died at Advocate Lutheran Hospital in Park Ridge.

Relatives remembered her Sunday as a devoted grandparent and book lover still sharp enough to read three novels at a time and to work at Wilmette Public Library.

“She led by example,” her youngest son, Robert Reifenberg, said, adding that his mother had a “positive attitude and zest for life that never waned.”

Reifenberg, who would have been 101 next month, still cleaned and cooked for herself at the condo where she lived alone, about a mile from her son’s house.

She grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio, where one of her earliest memories was hearing young men — who were preparing to serve in World War I — singing a popular song, “Over There,” her son said.

She married her husband, Paul, in Paris, Ky., and liked to say she had wed “in Paris.” Later in life she visited the French capital, where she became a devotee of “Shakespeare & Company,” the bookstore made famous by expat American writers including Ernest Hemingway.

Her love of literature allowed her to strike up a friendship with former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and it also made her a natural fit at the library, where she took a job following her husband’s death 25 years ago.

Her duties included preparing new books for circulation, a job she loved because it gave her a “sneak preview” of the latest reads, her son said. She just recently enjoyed the new Neil Gaiman novel, said Janie Reifenberg, her daughter-in-law.

But it was family, not books, that Reifenberg said was the secret of her long and happy life. Interviewed before 100 friends joined her for her centennial birthday party last year, the mother of five and grandmother of 10, said, “I wouldn’t still be here if it wasn’t for the joy my grandchildren bring me.”

Services have yet to be arranged. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

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