From John Rutherford, Producer, NBC News, Washington
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Mickey Weiner supplemented his teaching salary at Irvington High School in New Jersey by repossessing cars for a local bank and working as a lifeguard, a waiter and a bartender.
"In general, everyone had a tough time because of the Depression years," Weiner, who just turned 100, said recently. "There was a lot of unemployment, and people who had jobs were lucky. I had a job, and I was pretty well taken care of. I had a new Ford I bought. It cost a little over $500."
Gas cost 12 cents a gallon back then, which was a good thing, because Weiner's salary was cut in 1932 from $1,800 to $1,200 a year. That didn't stop him from continuing at Irvington High for the next 42 years, retiring in 1974 as principal. He and his wife Ginny live in relative comfort because of investments he made over the years in the stock market.
"I've gotten myself a house and a lot that's worth about $1 million, and it's more than I earned teaching, and that's because of the stock market," he said.
Weiner believes today's tough times will turn around in a couple of years.
"It's a bad year," he said, "but it'll come back, that's the thing. Right now it's not too good. I think eventually it'll turn around and become better."
Another centenarian, 100-year-old Herbert Winckelmann of Staunton, Va., is also generally optimistic about the future.
"I believe our government has learned from what has happened, and I don't believe that it could ever again be the same as the Great Depression," he said.
Winckelmann was born and raised in Germany, which descended into Depression long before the rest of the world because of its loss in World War I.
"My dad, uncle, grandmother and other relatives were all small millionaires," he said. "The paper money and bonds became worth nothing. My father had an import and export business to Africa and lost his business. We lost everything. We had to start up from nothing."
A third centenarian, 100-year-old Mitchell McNair of Los Angeles, lived through the Great Depression in the small Arkansas town of Fordyce, where the Rock Island and St. Louis Southwestern railroads crossed in the southern part of the state.
"It affected me pretty bad," he said. "I was working at a saw mill, and the thing shut down, and I went looking for a job, and there wasn't no jobs. So it was a sad time. They passed out some black flour for us, see, and we got a sack of that black flour. I don't know what they did with the good flour."
How did he survive?
"The best I could, just like all the rest of them," he said. "Get what you could. Oh, I worked on the farms and what have you. There wasn't no jobs. I never lived through nothing like that before, and I hope I won't have to again."
McNair, who moved to California in 1939 and later owned several gas stations, said it's hard to compare the Great Depression with what's happening today.
"I don't see it being quite as bad," he said. "I hope not. I don't think it will be, but, 'course, we can't tell. We just don't know what's coming."
Photos: Mickey Weiner as a lifeguard in 1930; Herbert Winckelmann with younger brother Fritz in 1919, and Mitchell McNair in 2008 (family photos).
Willard Scott featured all three centenarians on NBC's TODAY show. If you know of any centenarians who've had a brush with history over the past century, please tell us a little bit about them in the comments section below and be sure to fill in your return e-mail address so we can get back to you for more details.