Roughly one in every 6,000 Americans lives to be 100 years old.
Count Kalispell’s Debbie Wilson among the distinguished.
At 101, Wilson is a lasting member of the so-called Greatest Generation, having persevered at a young age through the Great Depression and both World Wars while nurturing a family with her late husband that has branched out from three children to eight grandchildren, 18 great grandchildren and three great great grandchildren.
From her second-story apartment at Buffalo Hill Terrace in Kalispell, Wilson now enjoys visits from her family and likes to gaze at the clouds or the pine trees or the playground just outside her window. Even though her eyesight has deteriorated, she appreciates the simple pleasure of watching lively children scamper around playing games.
“They are so cute. They never walk, they just run,” she says.
Wilson is among a notable group of centenarians — those who are 100 or older — living in Montana who are being honored next week at the 46th annual Governor’s Conference on Aging, which is being held in Kalispell this year.
The state’s health department began gathering names of centenarians earlier this year and a total of 11 local residents are set to be recognized at the two-day conference, May 6-7 at the Red Lion Hotel at Kalispell Center Mall.
The annual event, hosted by the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services, is designed to pay homage and raise awareness of Montana’s elderly population, which is one of the fastest growing populations in the nation, according to the DPHHS.
“Montana centenarians are our most distinguished citizens and we would love to recognize them,” Richard Opper, director of the DPHHS, stated.
There were 175 centenarians in the state in 2010, according to the latest census.
One of Montana’s oldest residents, Wilson can still recall her early childhood and the memorable events that unfolded over a momentous century.
News of the sunken Titanic was still fresh on everyone’s minds and the original Model T Ford automobiles were still a surprising sight when she was born Lucille Deborah Sprague on Sept. 2, 1912 in Eagle Point, Ore. She spent much of her childhood visiting her mother’s family farm near Conrad.
“I loved riding in the one-horse buggy with my grandfather,” she says.
She keeps a picture hanging in her living room of her as a child, wearing overalls and perched atop a horse in the empty plains of Big Sky Country.
“It’s interesting how things have changed. It all comes to my mind all these things that are so different,” she says.
Women weren’t allowed to vote until Wilson was 8. Even through her adult years, she followed a dress code that seems unbelievable in many ways today.
“I didn’t even wear jeans when I was growing up. I don’t think my father would approve of me having slacks,” she says.
She adds, with a smile, “We now all wear comfortable shoes. I never saw so many ugly shoes.”
She was 18 when the Great Depression hit, spiking the nation’s unemployment rate above 25 percent. To help, she volunteered with a county nurse in Oregon, delivering aid and food baskets to residences as a way to help, even though it didn’t pay.
Helping others would become a defining trait of Wilson throughout her life, as she earned a master’s degree in social work and spent time working with the American Red Cross.
It was during college at the University of Washington that she met her husband, James Weber Wilson, who would go on to be a captain in the Navy Reserves during World War II.
They eventually moved around the U.S. and Canada, including a long stint in Maryland, before Wilson came to Montana a few years ago to be closer to her son and his family. Since moving here, she’s come to appreciate the friendliness and kindness of Montana residents, who, as she says, are constantly helping others. She’s also a lover of art and enjoys seeing organizations like the Hockaday Museum encourage children to nurture their artistic abilities.
As far as achieving the impressive feat of reaching 100, Wilson says it was never in her plans; it just worked out that way thanks to staying active and living life in moderation.
46th annual Governor’s
Conference on Aging
May 6-7, Red Lion Hotel, Kalispell
Local centenarians registered for the conference
Bernice (Bea) Barry, 100, Kalispell
Velma Bradley, 100, Kalispell
Beulah Brown, 100, Kalispell
Dorothy Flint, 100, Kalispell
Ruby Mocabee, 100, Ronan
Hazel (Johnson) Motichka, 100,
Virginia Ophus, 100, Kalispell
Margaret Pontius, 100, Bigfork
Joseph Slobojan, 101, Kalispell
Forest Sanford Thompson, 101,
Lucille Deborah (Debbie) Wilson, 101, Kalispell
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