We recently had the opportunity to sit down with three unique and lovely centenarians and asked them what their most valuable life lessons were, and also their regrets. The conversations that followed were remarkable. They talked about the importance of God, family, community, and love. Their view on life, as people with a lot of experience, is truly an inspiration and motivation.
Clara Togtman, the oldest resident at Victorian Village, just celebrated her 105th birthday in March. The faces of residents and staff alike light up at the mention of her name. Her positive spirit has been infectious and inspiring to those who encounter her.
When asked what she would go back and advise her 20-year-old self, she emphasizes education. “I never finished high school because of the Depression. I would tell myself to go back and get that diploma.”
Her life advice for all of us? “Make use of everything you’ve got, and learn to be content,” says Clara. The latter she cites as the one thing she has accomplished that she is especially thankful for. Though she admits she didn’t achieve that contentment until she was older.
Clara continues to look to the future with gratitude and hope. “In my life, I’ve seen a lot of changes in this world,” she says. “I’ve been through the Great Depression, and so many other events. God has taken care of me every time. I don’t know what else I will experience, but I know God is with me. I am blessed.”
At 102, Ervin Habada has quite a few stories to share—like paying $9,500 for his first home, or when his brother talked him into buying a car he couldn’t afford for $25. He recalls how bad things were during the Depression, so much so that there wasn’t any money for fun gifts at Christmas time, so children would get clothes instead. He quickly adds how much he appreciated such practical gifts, even though he was a child, because his feet were always cold. “There’s nothing better than a pair of socks to warm up cold feet,” says Ervin.
A carpenter by trade, he tried to teach people around him anything he could if he thought he could help them. That giving spirit is still in him today. When asked what advice he’d give to younger generations, he replies, “Get an education. Get a good job and hang onto it. And maybe, later on, get married.” He also adds, “Smile and be friendly to everybody,” something Ervin still tries to do every day.
The youngest of four, Ervin did whatever was needed to help around the house. He also remembers learning what not to do. He recalls smoking for the first time at eight years old. “I just remember trying to figure out why anyone would ever want to smoke!” Ervin exclaims.
When asked about all the technological advancements he has witnessed, he talks about when the television was introduced to America. “My cousin bought the first TV he could get his hands on and then wrapped the screen with cellophane so we had a colored picture.” Ervin and his cousin may just be the first people in America with a colored television due to creativity!
Prior to the television, Ervin remembers when his family bought their first radio so they could listen to Bohemian programming since they didn’t speak English. Ervin reveals he didn’t learn English until he was seven years old and picked it up from the neighborhood kids who were his age. “I taught myself English in a week.” Ervin states matter-of-factly. Who can learn to speak English in one week, you may ask? “A guy like me!” says Ervin with a chuckle.
Jeanne A. Klouda
Born in 1923, Jeanne Klouda has been witness to almost every major historical event of the 20th Century. But, the common thread that has been woven throughout her personal history is comprised of God, family, and community.
The oldest of seven children, she gladly helped her mother raise her younger siblings and do household chores. Growing up during the Depression, she recalls how important neighborhood connections were. She reminisces about the time the television came out. “It was a big deal for most people because not everyone had one. Those that did, would invite the neighborhood over just to watch TV because they didn’t have one to watch in their own homes,” says Jeanne. Considering most modern households have multiple TVs, it might be hard to fathom an entire neighborhood gathering around a single black-and-white television. That sense of camaraderie is what Jeanne misses most.
She met her husband, Richard (Dick), in high school, where they started as friends. They began dating a few years later. In 1945 when Jeanne was 22, Dick invited her to attend an Air Force Ball in celebration of his graduation from Flight School. Her father initially told her she could not attend because it required her to take the train alone. He eventually relented when one of Jeanne’s girlfriends agreed to accompany her. There was to be a dance and a pinning ceremony, but then President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed away and the event was cancelled.
While the celebration in Arkansas may have been scaled back, the Air Corps, now known as the Air Force, did have an outdoor ceremony, during which Jeanne pinned his wings on Dick and he officially became a Pilot and Officer. One day Dick told Jeanne he’d be flying over her home on his way in from the base where he was stationed and asked her to stand outside at a specific time. Jeanne stood in her parents’ yard as the planes flew overhead when one dipped its wings. It was Dick saying hello!
Jeanne and Dick married on September 1, 1945, and were married for 58 years until his death in 2003 from cancer. After WWII, both Jeanne and Dick went on to work for the railroad. Jeanne became the Secretary for the Chief Engineer of Union Station Company and Dick was hired as a Clearance Engineer for Milwaukee Road RR. Jeanne’s boss on her first day, would give her the best life advice, “Keep your nose clean. Don’t be talking about anyone else.” It’s advice she has followed throughout her life and believes it’s still great advice for everyone.
When asked if there is anything she wishes she could tell her 20-year-old self, she states that she cannot think of any wrong turns she took, that she would need to change. “I feel everything in my life worked out really well. I had a good husband & three children. Dick was kind, smart, he made beautiful furniture, he could fly a plane. He just did a lot of things!” Dick did carpentry as a hobby. When Jeanne mentioned she would like a long, oak table so she could display her violets in their living room, Dick made her one. She still has that table, along with a coffee table he made, in her Victorian Village apartment.
After Dick passed away, Jeanne lived alone. As a widow, she filled her days with her Quilting Club and church activities. She also played the organ for several years at home.
At 98 she told her daughter, Laura, and son, Dave, “If the time ever comes when I get old, I want to move to Victorian Village.” A year later she became sick and needed emergency surgery. After her surgery and rehabilitation, she and her family made the decision for her to move to Victorian Village.
While she may no longer live by herself, Jeanne remains active. She reads the newspaper every day after breakfast, plays cards, and continues to raise African Violets in her room. She and her neighbors meet every Wednesday in the hall for a weekly chat. She also enjoys visits from her children and her sister, Delores.
“When you’ve lived as long as I have, there’s a lot of memories,” Jeanne states. And while she has witnessed many historical events over the past century, the one thing she is most thankful for is her family. “I have a family that loves each other and helps each other. I can rely on what they have to say.”
When asked what her secret is to her longevity and excellent memory, Jeanne replies, “I think the Lord has a lot to do with it. I just believe that He was watching over me. He was guiding me, and you can’t get better guidance than that!”