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Floral Park woman, believed one of oldest living triplets, dies at 98

Frances Hornberger, left, Marguerite Miller and Catherine Roth

Frances Hornberger, left, Marguerite Miller and Catherine Roth at Hornbergers' home in Floral Park in 2010. Credit: Ed Betz

She was born the year Babe Ruth first played for the Yankees, the year Warren G. Harding was elected president. The year women, with the 19th Amendment, secured the right to vote.

Back in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn that summer in 1920, Frances Hornberger was born in the third-floor apartment of Marjorie and Walter Kirchner, the middle child among an unexpected trio of identical daughters. Catherine was the eldest of the triplets, weighing in at 6 pounds. Then came Frances and younger sister Marguerite, weighing in at 4½ pounds each.

The Kirchner triplets, known in their teens simply as "The Trips," led lives that coursed a not-so-brief history of modern America, of the modern world. From silent movies to the internet age, through the Great Depression, Prohibition, World War II, the battle for equal rights, civil rights, gender equality. From the dawn of the Roaring Twenties to the final year of the Twenty Tens.

Hornberger, a lifetime resident of Floral Park, where she worked first as a schoolteacher and later as a librarian, died June 2 at Chapin Home for the Aging in Jamaica, Queens. She was 98.

Supercentenarian expert Robert D. Young, senior consultant for gerontology for the Guinness Book of World Records, said Thursday he believes that, pending documentation, the Kirchner triplets — Hornberger and surviving sisters Catherine Roth of Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Marguerite Miller of upstate Batavia — will prove to be the longest-living set of triplets in U.S. and world history. The oldest documented set of triplets, Young said, are Faith, Hope and Charity Cardwell, born in Elm, Texas, on May 18, 1899. Faith Cardwell died first on Oct. 2, 1994, at age 95 years, 137 days. Guinness records, Young noted, are self-reported — and, therefore, are not absolute.

"Triplets alone are rare in themselves," Young said. "To get to age 98, all three of them? That's amazing … I would say it likely would be the record" for longest-living triplets.

The Kirchner triplets had an elder sister, Grace Haddad, who died on May 10 in Quogue. She would've been 102 on July 3.

"It's unbelievable, it really is," Roger Hornberger, 57, of Appleton, Wisconsin, said of the lives lived by his mother, Frances, and her sisters. "They all were pretty healthy livers, active well into their older years. Between that and eating good, well … Mom always said, 'What's all this processed food? You should always have vegetables, meat and potatoes.' "

Born on Aug. 23, 1920, Frances, Catherine and Marguerite Kirchner grew up with Grace in Floral Park, attending Sewanhaka High School, where the triplets played field hockey and tennis. They graduated Sewanhaka in 1938, then attended Hobart and William Smith Colleges upstate on what Roger Hornberger said was "a three-for-the-price-of-two" deal. That is, the school charged just two tuitions while allowing all three girls to attend the school.

That was a great deal, Roger Hornberger said, since his grandfather had been unemployed for several years following the stock market crash of 1929 and his grandmother, Marjorie, supported the family during that time with her salary as a schoolteacher. The Kirchner triplets all met their husbands in college. Frances married Henry Cole, who died of tuberculosis in 1946.

Later, Roger Hornberger said, his mom was introduced to his father, Clifford H. Hornberger, by a mutual acquaintance at their Methodist church in Floral Park. Clifford was a widower, Frances a widow, and together they brought three children into their new marriage, later adding four of their own. Clifford Hornberger died in 1986. Two children, Judith and Kenneth, who had Down syndrome, predeceased the couple, who are survived by Roger Hornberger and daughters Marjorie Cole, Ruth Hosford, Elizabeth Greenfield and Janice Dunbar, as well as by eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. 

A memorial service for Frances Hornberger is scheduled for June 22 at 10 a.m. at the Floral Park Methodist Church with a reception at the church following the service.

Roger Hornberger said that between Frances, Catherine and Marguerite, the sisters had 15 children and 13 great-grandchildren. The three all became schoolteachers following their graduations in 1942. Hornberger said his mother earned her master's degree in library science from Columbia University and then became the children's librarian at the Floral Park Library before retiring as its director.

"She started story hour for the kids out under a tree, sitting on a blanket, reading books," Hornberger said. "She'd test out all the books on us — 'Curious George,' 'Ferninand the Bull.' She'd read them all to us."

All four of the sisters got along well, Hornberger said. Newsday covered the 90th birthday party for the triplets, where the trio all dressed alike and told stories about their lives together.

"These three old ladies, they all looked alike, they all sounded alike," Catherine Dugan, 35, of Miller Place, said of the get-togethers with her grandmother, Frances, and her two great-aunts. "I would walk up to one of them, like my [great-]aunt Catherine, and say, 'Grandma?' And they'd say to me, 'No, not me … '

"One of those milestone events — their 70th birthdays, their 80th birthdays, their 90th birthdays — we'd go and have the three of them there together, and it was just a memorable thing … Once they were in the same room you could feel this almost kinetic energy. It was like they belonged together. It was just the cutest, funniest thing ever. They were three peas in a pod."

Dugan recalled how the trio wore matching outfits to the 90th birthday celebration, but how one of the sisters didn't like the pants. "I told her, 'I love the outfit' and she said, 'Thank you, I was shamed into wearing them.' "

Both Dugan and her uncle Roger said that being children of the Great Depression left a lifetime impression on the sisters.

"My grandmother [Frances] was such a Depression-era person," Dugan said. "That was obvious on phone calls. It was ingrained in her that phone calls are very expensive, so when you called she'd be like: 'Okay. Very good. Goodbye.' Instead, she wrote long letters, thank you notes. Little did she know the stamps probably cost more than the calls."

Roger Hornberger agreed. "My mom was always, 'Turn out the lights,'" he said. "As kids, it seemed like we could shuffle around to one aunt's house or the other aunt's house and still have our mom there, they were so much alike in many ways. And, believe me, they all wanted the lights turned out, that's for sure."

Roger said he plans to gather birth records, marriage records and his mom's death certificate for submission to Guinness. Young, the Guinness coordinator, said if those records can be verified, the triplets likely would be declared the longest-living triplets on record for the 2021 edition of "Guinness World Records."

"I think if they were all here, they probably wouldn't want all the fuss," Roger Hornberger said. "When they were in school they invented their own language to talk to each other, their own made-up English so no one could understand them. But, they all got along, all got each other. They just thought it was normal being a triplet. For them, it was."

Prohibition had been in effect barely eight months when the Kirchner triplets — Frances Hornberger and her sisters, Catherine Roth and Marguerite Miller — were born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, on Aug. 23, 1920. A loaf of bread cost 12 cents, a pound of bacon 52 cents; steak was 40 cents a pound.

Here are some notable events from the lifetimes of the Kirchner triplets, believed to be the longest-living triplets in recorded history.

1923 — “The House that Ruth Built,” the original Yankee Stadium, opens in the Bronx.

1927 — Charles Lindbergh takes off from Roosevelt Field — the grass airstrip, not the shopping mall — and flies, solo, across the Atlantic Ocean.

1928 — Walt Disney introduces the world to Mickey Mouse in the animated classic “Steamboat Willie.”

1929 — The stock market crash sparks the Great Depression.

1931 — The Empire State Building opens.

1932 — Franklin D. Roosevelt is elected to the first of four terms.

1933 — Prohibition ends; Adolf Hitler becomes the chancellor of Germany.

1937 — The airship Hindenburg goes down in flames in Lyndhurst, N.J.

1941 — The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.

1945 — V-E Day signals the end of the war in Europe; the U.S. drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to V-J Day, victory over Japan to end World War II.

1949 — NATO is founded; South Africa begins apartheid; Gandhi is assassinated.

1950 — The Korean War.

1954 — Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka.

1960 — John F. Kennedy is elected president, beating Richard M. Nixon.

1962 — The Cuban missile crisis takes the world to the edge of nuclear war.

1963 — Nelson Mandela is imprisoned in South Africa; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., leads the civil rights march on Washington, D.C.; JFK is assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald, who, himself, is shot to death later by Jack Ruby.

1967 — Thurgood Marshall becomes the first African American justice named to the U.S. Supreme Court; Dr. Christiaan Barnard performs the first heart transplant.

1968 — MLK and Robert F. Kennedy are assassinated.

1969 — Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first men to walk on the moon.

1974 — The Watergate scandal forces the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon

1979 — The Iran hostage crisis.

1983 — Sally Ride becomes the first female astronaut.

1984 — The introduction of the MacIntosh computer; the breakup of phone giant Ma Bell.

1986 — Chernobyl; the space shuttle Challenger disaster; the Iran-Contra affair.

1989 — The introduction of the World Wide Web

1991 — Apartheid ends in South Africa; the collapse of the Soviet Union.

2001 — Terrorists launch the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

2008 — Barack Obama becomes the first African American president. The original Yankee Stadium closes.

2011 — U.S. Navy SEALs track down and kill terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden.

2013 — The Boston Marathon bombing.

2016 — The Chicago Cubs end the curse of the Billy Goat, winning the World Series for the first time since 1908.

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