Journal Express, Knoxville, IA

March 4, 2013

Roberts will celebrate 105th birthday on Wednesday

Steve Woodhouse
Journal-Express

Knoxville — Helen Roberts has lived quite a life, a life that began in the same year the Chicago Cubs won their last World Series. 

Roberts, a resident at Park Lane Village, will celebrate her 105th birthday on Wednesday, March 6, though she could easily pass for someone much, much younger. Her enthusiasm for learning, reading, the outdoors and politics of the day is stronger than that of some of those one-fifth her age. 

Helen (Ward) Roberts was born in Franklin Township March 6, 1908. Her father was a schoolteacher, and the individual she believes had the greatest impact on her life. She followed in his footsteps and taught in a country school, teaching children from age 4 through graduation. 

She grew up on a farm, a lifestyle she kept well into her later years. Her family had a farm near Lincoln Cemetery, then moved to Highland and Donnelly through her youth. The young lady graduated from Knoxville High School in 1926. She went on to school in Spearfish, S.D., during the summers of 1926-28.

Always a lover of nature, she enjoyed her time in Spearfish, as it offered much to enjoy in the outdoors. Even during the interview for this article, days before her 105th birthday, she consistently expressed her desire to get out and camp as soon, and as often, as she could. As she was growing up, she would work in the field, then head to a nearby stream to catch a couple of Bass. She would return to her house and fry them for her lunch. 

Following her graduation in Spearfish, she began teaching. She is proud of the box suppers and pie sales she helped organize to help raise money for the schools. Box suppers included preparation of a meal by a young lady. An auctioneer would present the boxes for bidding and the young men in the audience would "buy" the box that caught their eye. Buying the box gave the young man the opportunity to enjoy the nice meal for two with the lady who prepared it. 

While teaching - up to 29 kids of all ages in one room - Roberts also helped the school purchase a kerosene stove. The stove was used to prepare meals for the children, some of whom may not have had anything more to eat than a slice of buttered bread. 

"That was the nicest thing to do for the kids," Roberts said. 

In her first year of teaching, Roberts earned $70 a month. By the time she "retired" from teaching, she was earning $80. 

It was at that time she married Ralph Roberts. The couple began their life together on Sept. 29, 1929. They rented a 160-acre farm around Ralph's hometown of Attica. 

"Farm life is a good life," Roberts said. They enjoyed a two-story house on the farm. This was more than they needed, and they opened their home to five female teachers and two male miners who worked in the area. Roberts loves to cook, and did so for her family, boarders and farmhands. 

Ralph and Helen worked through the Great Depression, with their farm providing for themselves and their two sons. They spent nearly 20 years on the farm near Attica, then moved to a different one near Knoxville when their sons were leaving the nest. 

"One day, I woke up and decided I wasn't going to be a farmer anymore," Roberts said. This was in November 1948. She answered an ad in the Journal-Express (a paper she has taken and read throughout her life) to work as a receptionist at the Mater Clinic in Collins Memorial Hospital in Knoxville. 

This was the happiest day of her life, she said. She still remembers her days with the hospital fondly. 

Roberts kept the books, took payments, helped the patients and did whatever was asked of her. She held every baby born at the hospital and relished the privilege. One day, she was offered the job as administrator.

"I didn't think I was capable, but I thought I'd like a shot at it, so I said yes," she said. "That was 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 25 years." 

The day she was replaced was among the saddest in her long life. She asked us not to get into the specifics of how she was replaced. 

"I loved my hospital work," she said. "That was my life." 

When that happened, she was in her late sixties. This began her volunteering career, one that includes achievements such as starting the first girls' 4-H Club in Indiana Township, working with the Zion Methodist Church, helping at the Community Action Center and more. Roberts has always been interested in being part of clubs, such as Eastern Star. Her love of cooking took her to many Marion County and Iowa State Fairs, where she shared her delicious recipes. 

Ralph passed away in 1976, but Helen stayed on the farm for another 20 years. She slipped and fell on the ice, breaking her hip for the first time, during that time frame. 

Nevertheless, it did not stop her from continuing to go to the lake as often as she could to feed the geese. She fondly remembers the travel trailer that took her on many adventures throughout the years, including the time she spent in Florida. She owned land on the west coast of Florida, but has since sold it. 

"I should have built a house and stayed there," she said. She believes everyone should own a piece of land. 

Roberts is confined to a wheelchair today, which disappoints her. Though she can no longer get the physical exercise she used to in nature, she continues to exercise her mind.

A proud, lifelong reader of the Journal-Express, as well as the Des Moines Register, Roberts continues to be a news and political enthusiast. She likes to know what's going on at every level - township, city, county, state federal. 

In her life and travels, she has had brushes with prominent political figures. She once camped next to Dwight Eisenhower's personal campsite in South Dakota. She saw Harry Truman when he visited Melcher and she shook hands with Ethel Kennedy at the Marion County Courthouse during Bobby's presidential run. 

When she's not keeping an eye out for the politicians and news of the day, she's reading books. Roberts is especially fond of mysteries and other fiction. The mantra she repeated during our visit was "Read, read read." 

"People get a good education, but they do not know what's going on," she said. 

She lives for Thursdays, when a representative from the Knoxville Public Library comes to the facility to deliver books. She would be very happy to go to the library herself, but she fears she would be a burden to someone who took her. This fear of being a burden is also holding up her wishes to continue to be active in the Zion Methodist Church. 

Roberts wishes that some people were as willing to recognize their limitations as she has, especially when it comes to driving.

"If you aren't capable of driving, quit," she said. 

At her assisted living facility, she still cooks when she can. She compliments Park Lane Village on the food prepared for her, saying it is very good. 

Roberts has left her mark on a number of Marion County residents. Many who met her or knew her from the hospital, still come by and say hello. She inspired her sons to follow in her footsteps, one is a farmer and the other became a hospital administrators.

"I had a lot of people who were really inspirational," Roberts said. 

The centenarian enjoys a good, well-balanced meal, but that does not mean she does not enjoy the good stuff. To this day, she still enjoys pie and pizza. When asked her plans for her birthday, she was not sure what she would do. Her wish is to go to her favorite restaurant.

"I just don't think about getting old," Roberts said. "Every day I get up and thank God I'm alive." 

Maureen Miller contributed to this article.