Virginia Jensen's Channing Avenue home was outfitted for a celebration on Nov. 16: a banner over the fireplace, colorful Mylar balloons spread throughout the rooms and a carefully decorated cake in the kitchen with the greeting "Happy 100th Birthday Mom!" written out in bright pink frosting.
She brimmed with pride as she sat surrounded by close family and friends who came together to celebrate her 100th birthday, standing out from the crowd with a bright white orchid pinned to her blouse.
Jensen, who was born and raised in Kearney, Nebraska, made the trek to Palo Alto when she was 20 in the name of love. She followed her then-boyfriend and future husband George Jensen, who had followed his brothers to California and settled a few years earlier. She recalled with a smile that her husband realized he needed to come out West to make money. He found a job pumping gas at Chevron and used his earnings to bring Virginia Jensen out to California.
"I came here very young and bright. I didn't know my way around, and it didn't take me long to catch up to Channing Avenue," Virginia Jensen said. "I became very happy with Palo Alto — it was a good place to live."
The couple had a daughter, Marsha, and two sons, Rodger and Larry. The family never lived anywhere but Channing Avenue, where they first stayed in an apartment on the street before moving into a house George Jensen designed himself in 1952. She remained there for nearly 50 years, even after husband died in 2002 and daughter died in 2006, until she moved into the senior citizens housing complex Palo Alto Commons less than a year ago.
Virginia Jensen was always at her happiest in the garden, a passion she developed in Nebraska that she carried over into Palo Alto, where she took pride in her backyard filled with plants she cared for herself.
She obtained an associate degree from the College of San Mateo that would help her with gardening. As a member of the Garden Club of Palo Alto, she entered floral arrangements into the San Mateo County Fair, and recruited her husband to build the armature to display her creations.
She not only enjoyed plants in the great outdoors, but also in the kitchen. Jensen attributed her long life to a diet rich in vegetables, a practice she instilled in her children.
"I remember every summer waiting for the fairs, because then we could take our arrangements and our flowers to the fairs to be judged," she said. "That was always kind of an exciting time ... you met people from other gardening clubs, it was just a friendly thing."
The friendly atmosphere of the fairs didn't negate Virginia Jensen's competitive spirit, however.
"We sure wanted to be the ones with the golden stickers," Virginia Jensen said. "You became very tied to this thing you'd been working on."
She also found great joy with her family. Following her husband's retirement, they often went on five-week trips that covered sections of the country, eventually making their way through most of the 50 states.
Virginia Jensen's sons remembered her always greeting them when they came home from school. Her daughter-in-law, Nancy Jensen, recalled her husband Rodger Jensen telling her that Virginia Jensen would often bake her sons a pie, and use the extra dough to make cinnamon sugar snacks.
"I was always happy to be there," Virginia Jensen said, shaking off her children's praises. "That was my job."
Jensen's family described her as a very kind, exceptionally strong and smart woman.
A jack of all trades, she has a knack for reupholstering furniture, cooking and gardening. She's also a talented sewer, having made her daughter's wedding dress. She often applies her critical-thinking skills to reading or doing a crossword puzzle.
Nowadays, she keeps a busy schedule at Palo Alto Commons, where she participates in bingo games, daily exercise classes, concerts and Sunday trips to local destinations such as Crystal Springs Regional Trail in San Mateo with fellow residents.
Frank Aguilera, a neighbor of 25 years, described her as a "pioneer woman coming across a prairie" and likened her to a symbol of strength and bravery.
Nancy Jensen said she had much admiration for her mother-in-law, who could've been just as successful had she been born in another decade and taken a different career path.
"She's extremely smart, and I always thought that had she been born a little later, and gone on to college, she could've been an outstanding business operator, a CEO," Nancy Jensen said.