Still sharp at 105

Sageland Special - Esther Harmon nears 106th birthday

by: Photo By Holly M. Gill - Esther Harmon

   Oklahoma and New Mexico were still just territories when Esther Harmon, of Culver, first lived there with her pioneering family.
   Even though they were among the early settlers in those areas, when Harmon moved to Culver 76 years ago, she clearly remembers being considered a newcomer by the eight other families.
   At the time, she said, "Culver was a store, a post office, and the school, and that was about it."
   It was another 14 years before the young family was counted among the established residents of the area.
   "We were the newcomers until 1946, when water came in," she said, recalling how those who had owned property prior to the formation of the North Unit Irrigation District were checked off. "With the stroke of a pen, we became oldtimers."
   Harmon will turn 106 on June 30 -- a feat accomplished by only one out of 10 centenarians. Of the country's 300 million-plus population, only about 50,000 people have surpassed 100 years.
   Worldwide, the oldest person is believed to be a 114-year-old Indiana woman -- a mere eight years older than Harmon.
   With her lively green eyes and spry, upright posture, Harmon's appearance belies her age. She dresses smartly, coordinating her outfits with scarves, jewelry and shoes.
   The centenarian is also blessed with a keen mind and extraordinary memory.
   "She's sharp as a tack," said her daughter Theo Schonneker, 82, also of Culver, admitting that she often relies on her mother's memory for names and dates. "She's up on what happened yesterday in the news."
   "I watch the news because I don't like to be left behind," explained Harmon, a former nurse and schoolteacher with an inquisitive nature and a love of learning.
   Although she follows the news, she doesn't necessarily believe it. "Most of it is hype nowadays -- to get the most mileage out of the whole thing," she said, reminiscing about a time when well-respected newscasters, such as Walter Cronkite and Hugh Downs, could be counted on for the truth.
   For television entertainment, she relies on Oregon Public Broadcasting. "I want something that's informative," she said. "I don't like junk."
   From the presidency of the first Roosevelt to the second Bush, Harmon has lived through more than a century of newscasters and news.
   When the 19th Amendment, giving women the vote, was ratified in 1920, Harmon was just 18 years old -- too young to cast her first ballot. At the first opportunity, the 1924 presidential election, she voted for John Davis, the Democratic candidate, over the winner, Calvin Coolidge.
   Since then, she said, "I've never missed a vote." This year's presidential election will be the 22nd for the lifelong Democrat.
From Oklahoma to New Mexico

   On June 30, 1902, Harmon was born in Gracemont, Okla., -- Cherokee Territory -- five years before Oklahoma became the 46th state. Theodore Roosevelt was president, a first-class postage stamp cost only 2 cents, and the U.S. population was just over 79 million.
   The oldest of seven children of a lawyer and a homemaker, Oscar H. and Patience DeLong Greene, Harmon remembers the family moving to New Mexico when she was 7.
   Congress had passed the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, which allowed homesteaders to claim 320 acres in certain dryland areas, and Oscar Greene was eager to make the move.
   Greene moved his wife and four young children into his parents' home and packed up for the move, intending to send for the family. He set out for the train station, Harmon recalled, but didn't get on the train.
   "He came back that same day," she said, telling them he just couldn't get on the train.
   His intuition was uncanny. That night, he heard his father, a doctor, thrashing around in his bed, and went to investigate.
   Her grandfather told her father, "Son, I've had a stroke, and if it reaches my heart, it will kill me," Harmon said. "Those were the last words he spoke."
   With the death of Harmon's grandfather, the family's plans changed to include her grandmother and an aunt, afflicted with polio, in the move to New Mexico.
   A few months later, after her father had gone ahead to get settled, the family set out by train. Harmon vividly remembers going through Texas, which had experienced some flooding, and finding that the Brazos River had washed out a train bridge.
   The family disembarked and was ushered across a couple of two-foot wide planks that spanned the river. "Two trainmen took my grandma, and four trainmen took my aunt," Harmon said. "My mother had a baby in her arms and was leading one with one hand."
   Harmon was able to navigate the bridge on her own, as did her 5-year-old brother, who ran across -- much to her mother's horror.
   Her mother was afraid to call out, Harmon recalled. "It was a roaring, red river."
   Fortunately, they all reached the other side safely, and were transported by train to Midland, Texas. From there, they eventually got a ride in a mail truck to a town called Knowles -- now a ghost town -- in the southeastern corner of the New Mexico territory. New Mexico became the 47th state three years later.
   Her father, a lawyer in Lovington, N.M., was instrumental in the establishment of Lea County in 1917. "He did all the footwork to get the county cut off (from Eddy County)," she said. "He was the first county clerk in Lea County."
   Last year, as the county neared its 90th anniversary, Harmon was contacted by a reporter. "He called to see if I had a picture of the courthouse and my father," she said.
   The reporter was surprised to learn that she not only had photos, which she promptly had copied and sent off, but also clear memories of that era.
Life in the Ozarks

   In 1919, the Greenes packed up and moved from the dry, mesquite-covered New Mexican landscape to the Ozarks. "We went from 4,500-foot altitude down to about 600," Harmon said.
   Living in the Ozarks, of Arkansas, is one of her favorite memories. "I loved all the beautiful trees," she said, adding that she has "a warm spot in my heart for the people."
   Harmon graduated from Mountain Home High School in 1920. Although the men on her dad's side were all doctors, dentists and lawyers, she was the only one of the Greene children to attend college.
   "In Arkansas, if you could pass a certain examination, you could get your certification to teach," she noted.
   She only taught for two terms -- summer and winter, since the students had to help put in crops in the spring and harvest in the fall -- but she has many good memories.
   "When I was teaching school, I had the first through fourth grades," Harmon said. "In the summer, they came barefoot. In the winter, they wore heavy Montgomery Ward shoes -- the boys, girls and all of them. Every one of them wanted to learn."
   Since entertainment was "what you cooked up yourself," Harmon decided that a library would benefit her students, and set about having pie suppers to raise money for books.
   "I donated all the classics I had in high school, and the other teacher donated her books. One of the board members put up shelves. That was the pride of that little school," Harmon recalled.
   The 19-year-old teacher married Chester Harmon, a farmer, on Oct. 15, 1921. The next year, they had their first child, Chester Jr., followed by Theo in 1925.
   "In Arkansas, there was no (nearby) hospital. I had kids at home," she said. "Our doctor drove out 12 miles and stayed the whole day."
Moving to Culver

   In 1926, the Harmons sold their farm and moved to Arago on the Oregon Coast. Charles, who now lives in Tumalo, was born there in 1927, and Robert in 1929. Robert died three years ago, and Chester Jr. (Chet) died in 2007.
   Esther Harmon was bothered by the coastal climate, so the family moved to Culver in 1932 to farm and raise their four children.
   "There were nine families in the school to begin with," she said. "That was about it until 1946, when the water came in."
   Chester Harmon got a job working on Lute Harrington's farm, and in 1933, they bought "the old Penwell place," at the start of a two-year drought.
   Beginning in 1934, they were fortunate enough to acquire the school and mail routes. The mail route took them down a single-lane road, across the Crooked River -- where The Cove is now located -- all the way out to the Grandview store and post office.
   "I'd drive it in the summer, when my husband was busy with crops," she said.
   Three times a week, "We'd leave the post office at 9 o'clock to deliver at Grandview," she said, noting that about six miles beyond the old store, they'd wait at a row of mailboxes -- in case someone had some return mail -- and be back at 1 p.m.
   In those days, before irrigation and the construction of the Round Butte Dam, there was a peach orchard and hay farm owned by the Boeglis at the bottom of the canyon.
   "My husband bought hay from Mr. Boegli's hay farm," Harmon said. "It's under 100 feet of water now."
   Chuck Schonneker, Harmon's step-grandson, who was raised in Culver, has many pleasant memories of growing up near "Grandma Harmon."
   "When I was a little kid, we lived where my mom (Theo Schonneker) lives right now, and she lived just down the road about a quarter-mile," he said.
   Since the Schonnekers didn't have a washing machine, on laundry day, he recalled, "I'd load the clothes into a little two-wheeled cart, and my goat Peanut Butter would haul it down to Grandma's and she'd wash them for me, and I'd haul them back and mom would hang them up on the line."
   He has fond memories of helping her with cooking and canning. "One thing that I liked was she made homemade cottage cheese," he said, noting that it was a personal favorite.
   "She's the most gracious lady there is," Schonneker said, adding that she's "a very elegant, intelligent, loving, sympathetic person."
A new career

   When her children were grown, Harmon decided to become a nurse. In 1956, she enrolled in nursing classes at Central Oregon Community College.
   "They had to do a special waiver for her to go, because she was over 50. She graduated, took her boards, and was second in the state," Schonneker said proudly.
   Just after she began the nursing program, Chester Harmon took a job as chief of police in Scio. She joined him after graduation in 1957, and went to work at the Santiam Memorial Hospital in Stayton, where she remained until 1964, a year after her husband's death.
   For most of the next decade, she worked in private practice for Dr. William Marino, in Stayton, before retiring in 1973 and returning to Culver. Dr. Marino continues to keep in touch by attending Harmon's birthday celebrations.
   Today, Harmon rents a cottage in Culver from her daughter, and spends days at her house, or puttering around her yard. Nights she spends at her daughter's house.
   Pointing out the flowers on a cactus inside her mother's home, Schonneker said her mother has always had a green thumb. Appropriately, Harmon is a longtime member of the Culver Green Thumb Garden Club, as well as the Our Day Out Club, Eastern Star and Rebekahs.
   Although she was raised in the Methodist Church, there was no money to spend on gas, so the family attended the Culver Christian Church, where she remains active.
   "I still go to church, Sunday school, and Wednesday women's Bible classes," she said.
   From the beginning of the SMART reading program in Culver, until three years ago, Harmon, who has always been an avid reader herself, was a volunteer at Culver Elementary School.
   "I have read everything," she said, listing authors such as Jean Stratton Porter and Harold Bell Wright. "Poetry was my main thing. My favorite was childhood rhymes by James Whitcomb Riley."
   "Mom read a lot of worthwhile stuff to us," Schonneker said.
   Harmon still reads newspapers and magazines, but as her eyesight has gotten worse, reading for pleasure has declined.
   "I used to be an avid reader," she said. "I still read, but the joy of reading is gone because it's just a chore."
Genetics important

   A mother of four, grandmother of 13, great-grandmother of 19, and great-great-grandmother to 23, Harmon attributes her longevity to good genes.
   "Genetics have a lot to do with it," she explained. "I've come from long-lived people." Her dad lived to 96, her dad's mother, 102, and her mother, 82. Twin sisters, her only surviving siblings, are 91.
   For maintaining her health, Harmon has no set routine or rules. "I try to eat sensibly," she said, noting that a good diet is important. "I like yogurt and cereals."
   After a problem with her gall bladder a few years back, she said, "I don't eat heavy red meat anymore. I'm more of a vegetable person."
   Never a smoker, Harmon is "not averse to a glass of wine," but only has two or three glasses a year.
   Along with the worsening of her vision, her acute hearing isn't quite what it used to be, but she downplays any problems. "I've had nothing to complain about, and I'm not going to complain about this," she said. "It goes with the territory."
   Part of the territory is losing both weight and height. During much of her adult life, she was 5-foot, 6 inches, and weighed from 110 up to a high of 165 pounds in her 40s. Today, she is only 5-foot, 3 inches, and 90-some pounds.
   Walking has always been a key means of getting around for Harmon, who now uses a cane for stability. Formerly an avid horsewoman, she's never broken a bone -- a record she hopes to keep.
   After a couple days of activity, Harmon is careful to get in a day of relaxation. She swears by the restorative powers of napping. "There isn't much of anything a good nap won't cure," she said.
   Even though Harmon admits she doesn't have the energy she used to, she keeps her hands busy.
   For the past 15 or so years, she has been knitting and crocheting baby caps for newborns at Mountain View Hospital. She produces 36 each year, in blue, pink and white, which she contributes a dozen at a time -- for Easter, Fourth of July, and Christmas.
   Last year, she also made fuzzy scarves for all her granddaughters and great-granddaughters -- a total of almost 30.
   "I can't stand to just sit and twiddle my fingers," she explained.
   The hardest part about getting old? "Realizing you can't do what you once did," she said. "You have to be thankful you can do the things you still can do."
   Losing loved ones is another difficult part of aging. At 105, Harmon has faced many losses, including her parents, four siblings, her husband, and two sons. "You just know that that is life," she said. "When they go, they're at rest; there are no more troubles for them in this world."
   Schonneker has tremendous admiration for her mother, who has "a great, forgiving nature," she said. "She sees the value in everybody she knows."
   "God made us all," said Harmon, who has always had a positive attitude. "When you point your finger at someone, there's three pointing back at you."
   Harmon still finds pleasure in simple things. "I love living where I can see the mountains," she said. "Those mountains intrigue me. When I step out and see those snow-covered mountains, I feel good all day."