Sandy Springs resident Pat Hillman with her Senior Games medals. (Photo by Mark Hillman)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2020 there were 90,000 centenarians in the U.S., with their number expected to reach 130,000 by 2030. But how many of us actually know one?

According to numerous studies, the one characteristic they all share is a positive outlook on life. I was able to see for myself recently when I attended the 100th birthday party of Sandy Springs resident Pat Hillman. a former senior tennis champion.

Before her party, I had several phone calls with her and her son Mark. I already knew she didn’t fit the stereotype of “old.” She’d been a competitive tennis player till age 96, lives independently, regularly plays the mentally challenging game of bridge, still drives her 2001 PT Cruiser, manages its maintenance and is a self-professed “sweetaholic.”

I also knew she had experienced much loss but had gone on to live a rewarding life thanks to her resilience and sense of humor. After hearing her life’s story, I was really looking forward to meeting her in person. But nothing prepared me for the person I would soon meet.

Her birthday party was in the sunny dining room of her Sandy Springs apartment complex. It was a white tablecloth seated luncheon with streamers, balloons, flowers, live entertainment and table after table of her friends and supporters, including a table reserved for her tennis team. At a large round table, surrounded by her family was Pat, the guest of honor.

Pat with her trophies. (Photo by Mark Hillman)

As I approached her table, she recognized me and welcomed me with both arms. Looking closer to 70 than 100, she’s vivacious and poised, with sparkly eyes, a sincere smile and a quick wit. Nothing frail about this centenarian! Wanting to understand how she does it, I spoke to two of her friends.

“She’s wonderful. I adore her,” said Pam McTigue, a bridge partner for the past five years.

According to tennis teammate Carole Watson, the team had tried to keep her from retiring from the game.

“She’s such a fabulous tennis player we all wanted to be her partner,” she said. “She can put the ball anywhere on the court with spin. You can’t beat her.”

Seeing her in a room filled with smiling friends, yet knowing the various adversities she has faced, I realized that her secret was to live in the moment rather than dwell on the past or what might have been.

She was born into a comfortable family in Trenton, New Jersey. Her father owned a Ford dealership but lost everything during the Depression. During World War II, she attended college, majored in physical education and worked during the summers in an aircraft factory. She married Henry Hillman, a Naval aviator, in 1944, then had four children, occasionally subbed as a PE teacher and kept the family together during multiple corporate transfers for Henry’s career in the steel industry. After one of those moves, she picked up a tennis racket for the first time in her life.

Henry and Pat Hillman on their wedding day.

“I needed to do something besides change diapers,” she said.

After moving to Georgia, she became serious about tennis, though she never had a lesson. According to Mark, during her 90s, she was annually ranked in Georgia and the Southeast between #1 and #5 in both singles and doubles in the 75-and-up category, thus beating much younger people. Shelves in her dining room are filled with her trophies.

Along the way, she faced three great losses — the loss of her 20-year-old son in an auto accident, the loss of her daughter to cancer, and the loss of her husband when she was 70. She also fought breast cancer and chose a radical mastectomy.

“I didn’t want to be bothered by it,” she said. She was playing tennis again in six weeks.

She was devastated by the death of her son, but said, “You try not to think about it.”

She’s lived alone for the past 30 years. Her only regret is that she’s not still playing tennis.

“I wasn’t fast enough anymore,” she said. “But I’m happy. I have a lot of friends.”

When asked what advice she would give others, she said, “Be nice to each other. Look forward to the next day. Read a lot. Play bridge. Just get along with people. Try to be a friend. Look up and be happy.”

Then she added: “Just do who you are.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the percentage of centenarians in the U.S., saying they represent 3% of the population. We removed that percentage. We apologize for the error.

Carol Niemi

Regular contributor Carol Niemi is a marketing consultant and writes about people making a difference in our little corner of the world. If you know someone "worth knowing," email her at