FAIRFIELD — Emilia “Billie” Barrett spent her 100th birthday the way she wanted – surrounded by family and friends.
Barrett, a Fairfield resident, traveled to Cache Creek Casino Resort with about 15 others to play a penny slot machine in hopes of beating the odds. After all, she made it to the century mark. And there was birthday money to enjoy.
“She takes her gambling seriously,” warned granddaughter Carrie Hartshorn, who traveled from Idaho for the birthday celebration, which also included a party and Barrett’s weekly bingo game at the Eagles Lodge in Suisun City.
Once Barrett found a favorite machine, she was there to stay. What would make her move? “When I go broke,” she said.
That didn’t seem to be on the horizon as Barrett continued racking up wins, some of them making enough noise to draw out daughter-in-law Pat Larson, who was sitting on the opposite side.
“I wish my machine would go off (like that),” Larson said.
It is Larson and her husband Gil, Barrett’s son, who take the centenarian gambling every week.
“Bingo and Cache Creek keep her alive,” Pat Larson said, noting that Barrett visited the casino three days earlier.
It’s something that runs deep in Barrett’s history. Before gambling was legal in California, Barrett made trips to Reno. That often involved overnight stays, which meant she often played until 4 or 5 a.m., took a quick nap and was up for more slot play, Gil Larson said.
One time she passed out at Harrah’s because she was on a winning streak and had not eaten, Gil Larson said. Barrett has diabetes.
The “gambling gene” goes back to Barrett’s father, a German immigrant named Max Paul Stets. Hartshorn came across letters penned by Stets to his daughter, reassuring her they had bingo on the base where he was stationed.
However, it didn’t seem to get mixed with Lillian Hembree’s DNA. She is Barrett’s 93-year-old sister and lives in Suisun City.
“I’m lucky if I can get here twice a year,” she said at the casino.
Like many of Barrett’s family and friends, Hembree checks in on her sister from time to time.
“She’s the first one in our family to reach that age,” Hembree proudly shared.
However, Hembree was getting a little hungry and felt the odds were not good that her sister would leave her lucky machine for lunch.
Son Don Larson also provides transportation to Cache Creek. Barrett uses a different approach with him.
“She’ll say she wants to take me to dinner,” Larson said. “I’ll ask her where.”
The answer is Cache Creek. Then, she’ll rhetorically ask her son, “You like the food up there?”
“She’s got all kinds of tricks,” Don Larson said.
Betting 60 cents at a time, the maximum, Barrett wanted to make sure everyone got in on the act. She wanted Hartshorn to sit next to her.
“Grandma, I’m the worst gambler in the world,” Hartshorn said.
‘I just hit it for $32,” Barrett proclaimed.
“It’s your birthday. You are supposed to donate,” joked Spike Lawrence, a friend who traveled from Florida to be part of the birthday festivities.
The casino staff wheeled out a small birthday cake for Barrett. She took one bite, then went back to gambling. When it was time to cash in some vouchers, Hartshorn took them to a machine and returned with Barrett’s money.
“You got me all 20s,” Barrett said.
“That’s what the machine gave you,” Hartshorn replied.
“You have to do it the right way,” Pat Larson said, chuckling. Hartshorn returned to the change machine and exchanged the $20 bills for $5 bills.
“You don’t leave machines, do you?” Lawrence chided her.
The youngest member of the gambling group was Barrett’s great-granddaughter, 20-year-old Lindsey Abraham from Oklahoma. She spent some time watching Barrett play and wishing her good luck.
“She’s got a lot of life in her. She cracks me up,” Abraham said, adding that she knows her great-grandmother can hold her own. “She’s full of life. She could be my best friend.”
Barrett came home a winner, not only financially, but personally – a great day for a woman who otherwise would have spent the day at home watching “whatever” on TV.
Barrett was born in the Philippines on Oct. 9, 1912. Her father brought her to the United States when she was 13 months old. The first time they set foot in Fairfield was 1916. However, they moved often.
She married Walter Larson. Their first child, a daughter, died at 6 months. They had four more children: Dorothy Borgess, Donald Larson, Geraldine Wright and Gil Larson. Wright died several years ago. Barrett has 10 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren.
Reach Amy Maginnis-Honey at 427-6957 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amaginnisdr.