A Rock Island, Ill., man ranked as the oldest man in the United States and the third-oldest man in the world died Wednesday morning in his sleep at age 111.
Shelby Harris died “comfortably in his sleep of natural causes” after experiencing a decline in his health recently, said Dawn May, administrator at the Rock Island Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where he had lived since he was 105.
“It was more or less a winding down,” she said, adding that Harris had lived on his own, with some help, before moving into the nursing home.
Funeral arrangements are pending at Hodgson Funeral Home in Rock Island.
Harris celebrated his 111th birthday in March with a big party at the nursing home and a month later threw out the first pitch at the Quad-Cities River Bandits baseball game in Davenport.
At that time, Harris was listed on the record book as the fifth-oldest man in the world, but moved up to third-oldest man status before he died, said Dr. L. Stephen Coles of the Gerontology Research Group and Supercentenarian Research Foundation in Los Angeles.
Harris’ age might sound incredible to some, but to researchers in this field, “111 is not a big deal,” Coles said. With women included, Harris was the 51st-oldest person in the world when he died.
“To be in the top 10, we require someone to be 114 or 115,” he said. “And the oldest woman, who lives in Georgia, will have a birthday in August and turn 116. Those are the big numbers.”
What is rare is for a man to live this long, he said. Women are usually the ones who live the longest all over the world, Coles said as he talked about some of his team’s research into supercentenarians, which include those 110 and older.
That work includes looking into which genes are most common among those who live the longest. Coles said the team expects to publish a paper about its research by the end of the year, as researchers narrow down which genes are relevant in determining longevity.
Born in Indiana, Harris had lived at the Rock Island Nursing and Rehabilitation Center since he was 105. He served as a deacon at Second Baptist Church in Rock Island until he was 102.
As he aged, Harris spent a lot of time sleeping, but a few topics spurred him into conversation. One of those was marriage.
During an interview with a reporter in March, Harris talked fondly about his wife, Jimmie, and how pretty she was. He said she had a boy’s name but “she wasn’t no boy.”
He also kept forgetting he was having a birthday, saying his age didn’t matter.
The nursing home administrator said Harris’ death caused a lot of sadness on the facility’s third floor where he lived. He was served through the years by the same primary nurses and many of the same primary staff, who grew attached to him like family, May said.
At his birthday, staff asked Harris what he wished he could still do in life. He wanted to play baseball again. That is what prompted them to take him to the River Bandits game, she said.
“He also got to have his favorite meal for his birthday: fried catfish, okra and sweet potato pie,” she said. “We made that for everybody.”
Every year for the past five years, the nursing home has thrown a big party for his birthday. May plans to hold a remembrance for him next year at that time, she said.
“A lot of people knew him here and in the community,” May said. “He was a very nice man, he really was. He had a lot of good stories. He was very much well-liked.”