Like a Good Neighbor, Margaret Woodward is There ... For a Century
In a city as transient as Washington, it’s hard to find true locals. Sure, people might boast of having been here since the Eisenhower administration, but try finding someone who has lived here since William Howard Taft was president. Now that’s a native Washingtonian.
Margaret Rupli Woodward has been in Washington for more than a century. True, she’s not the only centenarian in town, but she just might be the only centenarian who has lived in the same house for 99 years. Woodward, who recently turned 102, moved into the house on Hall Place, in what is now Glover Park, when she was three years old. Back then, the road was dirt and chickens roamed her back yard.
Woodward’s mother and aunt bought the brick row house for just under $5000 in 1913, giving new meaning to a buy-and-hold investment strategy. “I like to tell people, I was born into a five thousand dollar neighborhood and now I live in a million dollar neighborhood,” Woodward chuckles, her cloudy blue eyes crinkling up. “And I haven’t moved.” The family later purchased the house next door and used it as a rental property. Woodward still owns both.
But while Woodward is entering her hundredth year on the block, her life on Hall Place has hardly been sedentary. After graduating from Goucher College (Phi Beta Kappa) and studying economics at University of Chicago, Woodward married a British newspaper reporter. They ended up in Amsterdam where she became one of the first female announcers for NBC radio. When the Germans invaded Holland in 1940, Woodward and her husband, along with members of a ballet troupe, escaped on a coal barge. “That was the first time I ever got intentionally drunk,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to be sober while crossing the North Sea in the middle of the night during a war.”
When she returned to the states, Woodward tried getting a job with NBC, but, as she recalls, “They weren’t hiring women. The only reason I got the job in Amsterdam was because I was well-educated, and I had a voice that projected well.” For the record, her throaty voice still projects well. And while her hearing is not as sharp, her memory is still very much intact. She never returned to broadcasting, but she did retain some advice Edward R. Murrow gave her. “He told me, ‘Don’t ever make it dramatic. Use understatement. "That was good advice.”
Woodward wound up becoming a foreign service officer with the State Department, traveling extensively throughout Europe. All the while, the house on Hall Place remained her base. “I always kept my things there.”
Although Woodward never had children (she and her husband divorced in 1947), she’s seen her fair share grow up on Hall Place. She also tutored children through her church for years after retiring from the State Department in the 60s. But it wasn’t just children she helped. Woodward spent a lot of time volunteering at a local nursing home, often visiting friends who used to live on the block. “But I seem to outlive everybody,” Woodward laughs, nodding her head of thick silver hair.
“There used to be all kinds of different people. There was a lawyer, a milkman,” Woodward says of the residents on Hall Place. “Now it’s all young professionals. It used to be more mixed up. This house had a bricklayer in it. My aunt was a school teacher. And there were a lot of astronomers” who worked in the nearby Naval Observatory.
“When we moved here, basements were used for coal. Now they have tenants.”
If anyone knows how to be a good neighbor, it’s Woodward. Her advice? “Be friendly, but mind your own business.”
As for secrets to her longevity, Woodward, who could easily pass for 85, credits “good genes and a good care-taker.” Maria Teresa Madariaga, a nurse’s assistant, came here from Chile to care for Mrs. Woodward after she had eye surgery in her 90s. She thought the job would last about two weeks. “Look at me now, seven years later,” she laughs, walking over to Woodward to help her readjust her pink floral scarf. But Madariaga, 54, wouldn’t think of leaving Woodward now. “She’s like my grandmother, my mother, my daughter, my friend.”
Woodward may credit Madariaga for her staying power, but Madariaga credits Woodward’s attitude and personality. “She has a good sense of humor and she doesn’t keep anger,” Madariaga says. “Yes, she can get sad sometimes, but not angry. In the seven years I’ve been with her, I’ve never heard her talk bad about someone.”
Neighbors on Hall Place have a similar respect for Woodward, regarding her as a neighborhood treasure. “The thing she has given to all of us, something that is unique and irreplaceable, is a specific history of where we live, and how lucky we are to be part of that history,” says Hall Place resident Nancy Tartt. “That sense of place that is difficult to find in our fast-moving culture. I will always be grateful to her for that.”
Woodward, too, is grateful. Perhaps heeding Murrow’s advice about being understated, she takes her age in stride. “I just accept it,” she says matter-of-factly. “I never asked to be a hundred. It never occurred to me that I’d be a hundred. Now I’m even more surprised to be 102. No one else on Hall Place has lived that long.”
And she would know.