Reaching the ripe age of 100 is no longer the rare achievement it once was. No fewer than 37,000 Americans are now centenarians and by the year 2000, this, the country's most rapidly growing age group, will probably number 100,000 members.
Which is bad news for all those 99-year-olds out there who are expecting birthday greetings next year from the Today show's Willard Scott, 57. The jovial weatherman has made a nine-year tradition of putting older folks on the tube, but there simply aren't enough spots anymore for every oldster who wants to be on the NBC show.
''A lot of people take it for granted that if they send something in, it will be on the air,'' says Scott's assistant, Nancy Fields, standing beside a two-foot-high stack of 100th-plus birthday requests. Fields estimates that the show receives about 200 letters a week, double the number five years ago, and says 105- and 108-year-olds now have an edge over those who are only at the century mark. Fields, along with assistant Kay Mannello, sifts through them all. ''It's rare that we do 100,'' admits Fields. ''I'm the largest clearinghouse for centenarians in America. It's my whole identity now.''
Only 10 percent of the Today applicants make it through the selection process. Many hopefuls are cut because their birthdays fall on Saturday or Sunday, when the show isn't broadcast. And by virtue of scarcity, men are more likely to make the grade than women, who account for 70 percent of all centenarians. Fame helps too: Last month, Scott wished Rose Kennedy a happy 101st birthday, even though none of her clan had sent in a request.
''A week before, we choose seven for each day,'' says Fields, who tries to give each state equal representation. ''We hold on to extras in case someone dies.'' Intangible factors often enter in. ''I selected some exceptional ones,'' says Fields, holding up a photo of two sisters doing stretching exercises in blue sweatsuits. ''One will be 100, the other 102. And one is a doctor. Last week, we had 102-year-old twins, two men. And for Monday, we have two 109s.'' Another letter's terseness caught her fancy: ''My aunt is a fan of Willard Scott's, and she loves peanut brittle.''
''We get letters from people born in a covered wagon,'' adds Mannello. ''The only thing I keep thinking of when you see so many of them living to that age is that there's hope that I could last a little bit longer.''
Those who are rejected are sometimes angry or disappointed. ''The office gets calls often from family and even people's nurses who are upset because they expect that the birthday will be announced,'' says a Today spokeswoman. ''Willard sends a personalized note to everyone whose birthday was not mentioned on the air.'' The competition is bound to increase. Already Scott has had to limit wedding anniversaries he'll announce to couples who've been together at least 75 years. What's next? A 110th-birthday minimum for a Today greeting wish? Says Scott, ''I think we've reached that point now.''