LAFAYETTE -- At 100, Rubi Wentzel is happy to share the secret to long life -- music and mushrooms.

"I want you to come over for a piano lesson and we'll have fried mushrooms, just like I do, every morning," she declares, moments after she's treated a visitor to a five-minute, private recital.

In the opposite wing of the Lafayette home she shares with her daughter Leslie Krikorian, guests from all over the country arrive to celebrate Rubi's 100th birthday.

Born on Oct. 19, 1912, in Spillville, Iowa, Wentzel moved to Toledo, Ohio and took up piano at age 6. More than 90 years later, she still plays.

"My father was in real estate and a house he sold had an old piano in the attic," she remembers. "They insisted he take it and I loved it, right away. I liked the sounds and all I wanted to do was practice. But the interesting part comes later."

Wentzel's three children zip in and out of the conversation, filling in the blanks and rerouting her chronological account when it meanders.

"Did you mention you were 16 when you went to college?" her son Ward asks.

"Did you talk about the plane crash yet?" prompts Leslie.

Carla Bowden, the middle child, says, "Don't forget about the 200 violins, mom."

Wentzel attended the University of Michigan, arriving with two $300 scholarships and a cello.


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"After I started cello, I hated piano. With those scholarships, I felt like a very rich woman," she says. "My last year there, I got a job at the Dearborn Inn, playing with my trio. It was 26 miles from school so Henry Ford lent me a car to drive back and forth." A Ford, of course.

Wentzel later toured summer music festivals in the Northeast and eventually married a man by accident.

"I didn't know what was going on. He just stopped at a justice of the peace. Don't know what I was thinking: he had no interest in music," she says.

Wentzel gave up the cello then and earned a commercial pilot's license, even joining the Civil Air Patrol. She flew until the day her plane got tangled in telephone wires -- "It was the instructor who was flying, not me," she chimes -- and crashed.

"I decided to change everything: got a divorce, went back to the cello," she says.

In 1949, she married Fred Wentzel, a German immigrant who worked in the print industry and played the violin. During 55 years of marriage, the Wentzel family lived and worked in several locations, all tied together by teaching and playing music.

Playing in the pit orchestra for artists like Johnny Mathis was a release, she says, insisting she likes all forms of music and boasting of her time in an all-girls saxophone jazz band.

Wentzel appears completely unaware of how unusual her life story is. Part of a generation of women who fought for independence, Wentzel simply rolled up her sleeves and lived the life she wanted -- making music.

Along the way, Wentzel built a solid reputation as a teacher.

Eighteen years ago, Stanley Middle School's Bob Athayde introduced Wentzel to his Lafayette music students.

"I have about 10 students who come for weekly lessons," Wentzel says, "I let them pick out a piece and if it's too hard, I simplify it so they can play their favorite."

When she's not teaching -- "Can't play cello anymore: legs can't hold the thing," she explains -- Wentzel practices yoga with an instructor who comes to her home. "I want to live until I can't do things myself," she says. "And if I went deaf, couldn't hear music; I wouldn't want to live that way."

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