“Call it Good”

Written by: Dorothy Mathis
“Call it Good”
Lived by Kenneth Sherer
b. 3/1/1912
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Written by Dorothy Mathis

Slipping behind the wheel of my car, I paused a moment to reflect on what I had just experienced. The small town was beginning to quiet down after their annual summer celebration. The event organizers were taking down the outdoor P.A. system and removing the barricades that blocked off the city park. Instead of participating in the festivities of the day, I had just completed a bit of time travel back over the past 98 years of the life of Kenneth Sherer.

As I drove out of town, the excitement of this experience fueled my way home as I marveled at the simplistic courage that has kept this man participating in life and looking forward to his 99th birthday. “Sure I’ll probably get to be 100 but first I am going to get to 99, ” Ken remarked as he described the philosophy that keeps driving him forward each day of his life, showing up one day at a time, ready for whatever the day may bring.

I am thinking that if I adopted that philosophy my quality of life would be dramatically improved. Replacing my incessant concern for the future with a “let’s just say yes to this day” would bring about a peace that is missing from my life but I see deeply engrained in Ken’s soft smile.

Ken’s eyes are as blue as a bright summer sky and his mind is so sharp you have to think very fast to keep up with his wit. “I’ve got one more story for you.” he says.

He quickly rattled off several number games so fast that I had to pause a moment to let my mind catch up to my listening. Ken just waited patiently for me.

“Here’s one for you. A man wants to wear a matched pair of socks. He has 12 socks in his dresser drawer but the dresser is in a very dark room. He wants to go in and bring out no more than he needs to make a matched pair. He knows he has 6 black ones and 6 white ones in his dresser. Now you tell me how many does he need to get?” I think a moment and decide the answer is 7. “No,” Ken says. “He only needs three.” “But what if they’re all the same color?” I replied. “Great, Ken says, “He’ll put on two.”

I had just caught on when he comes back with, “Now here is a riddle for you. Pick a number, any number between one and ten but don’t tell me what you are thinking. Now take that number and multiply it by nine. Add the two digits in your new number together. Subtract five from the sum of those two digits. This is the number you use to count the letters of the alphabet. Like one would be a, two b, three c, four d, five e, six f, etc. Now use that letter as the first letter of a name of a foreign country. Take the last letter of that country and use that as the first letter of an animal. Take the last letter of your animal to be the first letter of a fruit. Now are you thinking of an orange?”

Stumped again! This 98-year-old wizard has my head spinning. How on Earth did he do that? I say he combined his mathematical genius (he explains any number times nine adds up to 9 so D is always then number of the alphabet used) with his love of conversation and makes a sport of life.

His face is round and clean-shaven. His skin is healthy looking with good color. His limbs are stout, not heavy but far from the typical frailness of someone so close to 100. Nor does he dress characteristically nonagenarian. His not-so-causal crisp kaki pants and blue button down shirt illustrate his preparedness for the day.

“My father, Emil Sherer, was the best teacher I ever had.” In contrast, Ken’s grandfather John hadn’t even taught Emil to speak. Emil’s German Immigrant mother could speak no English. She taught her son the only language she knew. Ken is still puzzled, “Why on earth would a man allow his son to go off to kindergarten without being able to speak a word of English?” Maybe it was due to his severe beginning that caused Emil to make sure Ken learned far more than they taught in school.

When I asked Ken what his father had taught him he listed all he learned just from observation. “My father was very good to my mother. She couldn’t hear and he took extreme measures to tell her all about his activities on the school board, Chairman of the Board of Stewards and Superintendent of the Sunday school, as township clerk and his daily work in the farm fields. Sometimes she read his lips and other times he would lean over and talk into her ear. He was neither jolly nor domineering. He would drop what he was doing in the field and come in the house to help her when she needed him. He might say ‘Gee Whiz’ but never used bad language or spoke ill of the Deity.”

“He never got too old for me to talk to. He always knew more than I did.” Ken frequently asked Emil’s advice. He sought his father’s council at age 39 when the church asked Ken to be the treasurer. Ken felt the pressures of the position from the previous treasurer that seemed to be very bothered to give the report at church. Emil simply replied, “If they’d ask me, I’d do it.” Ken took his father’s encouragement and served a term of 22 years without concern of the parishioner’s judgment.

Ken closes his eyes when he talks as if he is stepping back many years into another world. His eyes were watering from the bright sunlight but he loves to be outdoors so we sat on the porch in the still summer air as he reached back in his memory.

He recalled specific details with such confidence that I felt as though I was in the story observing history as it happened.
Ken describes being inducted into the army April 28, 1942 to serve in the Second World War.
“They sorted out the misfits and put them into the medical camp.”

That is where he received his three-month pharmacy education while in El Paso Texas. He talked about the Queen Elizabeth, the ship with 21,000 people on board that took him to the north end of Scotland. He described the massive ship zigzagging around the ocean to dodge the submarines. From there Ken traveled by train to the 37 primitive Quonset huts that comprised the hospital. Ken worked in the hut designated as the pharmacy. They mixed up 15 gallons at a time of salicylic solution to treat burns from the bombs. The solution was used to promote growth of skin cells on soldier’s arms and faces. His salary was $21/month.

After the war Ken worked for the Government establishing the acreage in farm fields from areal photos. His mathematical skills served him well because they used a tool with a needle and could measure circumferences but most fields were oddly shaped with rivers, creeks, groves of trees etc, cutting though so they had to use exact math to estimate the number of acres in each field.

“I made $4.00 per day and spent 60 cents on dinner. Somehow I managed to buy a car. I got a Plymouth for $840 when I was about 35 years old.” His favorite new car was his yellow 1957 Chevy. Sixty years later, Ken at 95, passed his driver’s test and received his license without the aid of glasses and with no driving restriction. Ken says he took himself off the road anyway, “So I wouldn’t kill someone.”

Some of his fondest memories of his working years come from his 30 years serving the local citizens in the Glidden bank. Ken says, “It took two men to run the bank. The man in the back made the money. The man in the front told stories to get them in the door so the man in the back could make the money.” That was Ken’s responsibility; make everyone feel comfortable, welcomed and appreciated. He extended this hospitality beyond the walls of the bank into the community of Glidden. He was recognized for his community contribution in 1974 when he became the third recipient of the Leading Citizen Award.

Ken served as a stand in pallbearer at more than 200 funerals in town over 30 years. The funeral director knew all he had to do was walk down the street to the bank anytime he needed an extra pallbearer. Since Ken knew everyone anyway, he fit right in the empty spot.

One example of Ken’s reputation for community contribution is his 1974 stewardship speech. The church’s operating fund was getting low on cash. The new minister asked Ken to speak about six minutes; Ken got a little carried away. His objective was to add a bit of humor to get their attention so he could get across his message, “The more you give, the more you have to give.” After 26 minutes Ken was satisfied he’d delivered the message. That year, and for many to follow, the church had no difficulty getting all the operating money they needed.

Ken has lived by that theory of increasing generosity. He says he took his time building his financial security but never worried about giving what he had to others. He gave of his time, attention, energy and resources and believes it came back to him in many abundant ways. Ken still asserts, “When you give to others fortune will shine on you and pay you something you didn’t expect.”

As Mary Alice proudly discussed the respect and admiration her father has earned and all his accomplishments Ken became very humble and drifted off as if bored.

In the few hours I was on his front porch, several current as well as former neighbors stopped in to say hi or tease him about something. It was clear to me they not only loved him but had a longing to hang out with him, as if they could absorb some of his good health and cheer.

Ken continues to talk to people as if he is holding Maya Angelou’s quote close to his heart. “People will forget what you say. People will forget what you do. People will never forget how you make them feel.”

One of his long time friends Peggy Irlmeier says Ken’s love of life is an inspiration. “Ken will work in his garden for 5 minutes, sit in his lawn chair for 15 minutes then go back to work. She loves to quote Ken. “I sit more and work less every year.” Peggy, a life long Glidden resident, went to school with his daughters, worked with him in the bank and now lives across the street. She says, “Ken just enjoys life so much. He makes sure he gets something done everyday and just keeps moving.” Peggy quotes Ken on moving, “If you don’t, you won’t!”

Peggy says, “Ken is the kindest man on the planet, has amazing integrity and a playful sense of humor in spite of all the adversity he’s been thorough. Thirty-five years after surviving cancer he still climbs upstairs every night to the bedroom in his two-story home. He laughs every day. Quoting Ken again she says, “I’m going to be dead a long time so I am going to enjoy life while I can.”

There is considerable mystery around his younger days before he met “My beautiful savior, Genevieve whom I married. Together we raised two wonderful daughters.”

Ken credits his mother for the turning point in his life. “My mother sort of pushed me into marriage and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.” He won’t give details of his ornery days before Genevieve. I suspect those details are just as vivid in Ken’s mind as all the other but so inconsequential to the grand adventures of his life that he just chooses not to relive them. At least not out loud.

Among other things he collected dollar bills and post cards of Santa Clause. Every time I talk to Ken he teaches me something new. Most recently he informed me of the duties and joys of a numismatist. “I had a 1877 Indian Head cent that was worth about $450. The United States smallest coin has always been a cent, we never minted a penny. That term came from the Colonists after the English coin pence.” Ken informed me.

When asked it he’d do anything different or if he had regrets, Kenneth says, “no matter what you do, even if you took a different direction in life, you will come upon pitfalls, you cant avoid them, so you might as well call the life you live a good one, cuz you probably can’t improve upon it; there will be pitfalls in every life.” This helps me further understand Ken’s success in being so healthy at 98. I wonder ~ do disappointments from expecting problem free living shorten our life span?

Borrowing Ken’s philosophy for a moment, I look at my own life with new wisdom. I think he’s right. I probably can’t improve upon my past. When I just declare it good, no matter what is going on at the time, I get another glimpse of that peace that appears to be flowing through Ken like a ribbon of good health.

There are days when I have grave concern over the direction of my own son’s life, still in his early twenties. Then I think of the long life of contribution that Ken has lived and that helps me relax knowing that each man’s direction is different and whatever path my son chooses will be right for him as long as he just shows up and participates in each day.

I get the impression that Ken was never in a big rush to move through his day. Relishing in his daughters’ devotion and keeping his mind active he describes his leisurely paced days. “Some days there is no one here and I just watch the games. I can’t see so well any more but I can follow the sports announcers. My daughters check in on me and the neighbors do too. It was harder to get to 99 than it will be to get to 100,” he says. “How do you figure that?” I asked. “Well it took me a long time to be 99, but it’ll only take a year to get to 100.” He replied.

No complaint,
No regrets,
Just a good life.

Ken reached into his pocket for a handkerchief as he informed me he’s not old enough to be a great-grandfather. “Although I was married for more than 46 years to the same woman, I was 70 years old before I became a grandfather.” Ken’s good life stories will live on for many future generations.

Ken knew everyone and delights in gifting people with stories about their grandparents and great grandparents. He has helped many young people learn about their ancestry and heritage by just sharing his storehouse of memories. Ken welcomes anyone who wants to stop by with an inquiry.

Ken’s childhood stories are a delightful gift to any listener. If you are fortunate enough to be able to ask him, he will gladly tell you about learning the names of three rivers in Maine. “My 4th grade teacher said these were very important for me to learn because they flowed into the ocean and provided good fishing which was the primary industry in Southern Maine. I could not understand why it was so important for me to learn that but I did. Well, when I was 95 years old I finally got to put that knowledge to use. I was in Omaha at a graduation party and started talking to a man from Ohio who told me he’d recently been fishing in Maine. I asked him if he’d fished at a lake and he said no a river. So I asked him if it was the Kennebec, he said no. So I asked if it was the Penobscot, no he replied. Well it must have been the Androscoggin then. Yes, he said, how did you know that! So I told him I learned it in 4th grade.”

Then there was the time the Robinson Brothers traveling circus got stuck on his road and he had to help get Ruth the biggest of all 20 elephants turned around inside of a truck. “Now how many people do you know that can say they had an elephant in their front yard?” If you haven’t heard that one, you are in for a treat as he describes every detail as if it happened yesterday, instead of 80 years ago.

He remembers the “Roaring 20s when Calvin Coolidge was President and Charles Drake VP. The United States didn’t owe a dime. It was a time when many other countries owed us money. Then came Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929.” He remembers around 1932 (he would have been 20) taking 12 dozen eggs to town and selling them for 8 cents/dozen netting 96 cents. He says the two things he can’t live without (but did many years) are indoor plumbing and electricity. He eats oatmeal every day, drinks a little cranberry juice every now and then but his favorite food is potatoes. He is still growing them in his garden although he still has to buy some because he eats twice as many potatoes as he grows.

Several months later, on a Monday morning as I transition from the weekend to the workweek, Ken is still on my mind. I don’t really want to go to work but I am thinking how Ken just showed up everyday with those blues eyes open to whatever happened. I decide just maybe today will bring something unexpected so I change my mind about wanting to go to work.

I don’t think Ken set out to leave the world a better place to live or intentionally looked for ways to help people. I suspect he just embraced each moment as it came. Ken is still showing up with that peaceful confidence that each day holds something of value. He’s not out searching for it; he just allows it to unfold.