FRANKFORT -- Ask Julia Vondra the secret to her long life and she'll lean forward conspiratorially.

"I can't go to heaven and I don't want to go to hell, so I have to stay here," she'll confide with a grin.

The spirited centenarian has had her share of adventures, from seeing the dirigible Hindenberg, which exploded in 1937, to bouncing on a bungee trampoline on her 99th birthday. But some of her favorite pleasures in life are the simplest: singing, dancing the polka and snacking on a certain European delicacy.

"I love to eat," she said. "I love pickled herring better."

A longtime resident of Thompsonville, Vondra recently turned 102 at The Maples, a Frankfort medical care facility where she has lived for the past five years. She's one of the facility's most active residents, attending nearly every outing, including weekly luncheon dances at the Benzie County senior center, said friend Danielle Gardner.

"Julia is just a spunky little thing," said Gardner, a volunteer at The Maples, where Vondra shares a room with a woman she once baby-sat. "She will do anything."

The eldest daughter of Czechoslovakian immigrants, Vondra was born in 1906 in Rib Lake, Wis., halfway between Green Bay and Minneapolis. When the stony soil there proved too difficult to farm, she and her family crossed Lake Michigan in 1911 and settled on more promising land in Thompsonville.

After a rural childhood filled with small adventures like sneaking to the barn to swing on the hay rope and attending Springdale Township Hall dances by horse and buggy, Vondra struck out for Chicago and a job in a steering wheel factory. She was followed by her husband-to-be, Edward Vondra, her brother's tall, dark-haired friend. The couple married in 1927.

Eventually Ed was transferred to Philadelphia, where he worked in a Sears paint factory. Vondra stayed home to care for their two children, the oldest of whom died of pneumonia before her first birthday. When Vondra's mother had a stroke, the couple moved back to the Psutka farm to nurse her and never left.

Judy Wheelock, 51, grew up across the street from her grandparents and recalls that their house was always filled with music.

"You'd go in the house and you'd get swept up in it," she said. "All us kids learned how to polka. She told me that when she was young and there was no electricity, they'd light the oil lamps at night and Pa would play the mouth organ and Ma would dance."

Ed died in 1981, but not before the couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a polka band at the Springdale Township Hall. Now Vondra dances without him at The Gathering Place in Honor, where weekly dances attract up to 100 or more seniors from as far away as Wellston and Manistee.

"She comes every Tuesday," said Marilyn Killeen, coordinator of the Benzie County senior center. "She dances every polka."

The great-great-grandmother of 10, Vondra said she never thought she'd live so long. But she wouldn't do anything differently if she had it to do all over again -- except perhaps learn to drive.

"I'm satisfied with my life," she said. "I think I had a happy life."

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