Centenarian recounts small town life, simpler timesOct 01, 2022 08:55PM ● By Julie Slama
Birdene Neuteboom, who will turn 100 in September, enjoys family visits, as great-granddaughters Miranda and Megan Clegg stopped by to see her in August. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
By Julie Slama | [email protected]
As a girl, she was an early riser. She had to be.
Every morning before 4 a.m., she’d be walking into town to gather customers’ laundry to bring home to her mother. Afterwards, she’d walk back into town to grocery shop for the day. Then, she’d cross the railroad tracks one more time to attend school — sometimes barely making it on time to the two-story building that housed all 12 grades.
“Sometimes the train would stop, and I had to cross the tracks to go to school,” she said. “Then, I would crawl under the boxcars to get to the other side so I wouldn't be late for school. My mother told me not to, but she didn’t know every time I did it.”
After school was let out at 4 p.m., she’d race home to get the laundry her mother had cleaned on a washboard and ringer to deliver back into town — before she began some of her chores.
Her father repaired railroad tracks so he often would bring home the old ties for her brothers to saw into chunks.
“It was my job to pick them up in the wheelbarrow and I’d wheel them across the yard and throw them through the open window into the basement so we could use them to burn in the big old furnace to keep the house warm,” she said.
Another chore was tending to the 250 baby chicks, which included sleeping in the hen house so the chicks wouldn’t overcrowd the brooder and suffocate.
Birdene Mae Mohr Shank Neuteboom, who will celebrate her 100 birthday in September, grew up as one of 12 children to Russian immigrant parents in Chester, Nebraska, a picturesque farming community of a couple hundred people near the Kansas state line.
Neuteboom was named Birdene after another woman in Chester: “My mother said she was a sweet loving woman. So, she named me Birdene because she wanted me to be a sweet loving person. I don't know whether I turned out to be or not.”
When she wasn’t doing chores or in school, Neuteboom counted cars of the several freight and five passenger trains traveling daily on the Burlington & Missouri Railroad Line that ran right through town. At night, she’d lay on the hillside and count stars.
Named for President Chester A. Arthur, the town of Chester when Neuteboom was growing up had Dry Brothers General Store, some doctors’ offices, hotels, a lumber yard and other businesses.
“I remember the Great Depression and we were poor, that’s why my mother took in laundry, but I really loved chocolate stars and if there was a penny or two, sometimes she would let me buy some at the store where my brother George worked. I’d get maybe five or six, and sometimes, he would sneak in an extra one,” she said. “The school had the first eight grades down on the main floor and other four grades were upstairs. We studied algebra, English, biology, home economics, penmanship and shorthand – I never could make those figures out right for the teacher. When I left eighth grade and went to the ninth grade, I thought, ‘Man, I’m something going upstairs to high school.’”
After graduation, Neuteboom worked at the Truckers’ Café to help support her family shortly after the U.S. entered World War II.
“I worked 12-hour shifts. There were two of us girls and one week, I’d work the day shift, and then, we’d switch, and I’d work a week of nights. I was paid $10 for one week and every check went to my mother,” she said.
It was at the diner where she met her Warren “Curly” Anthony Shank, who as a trucker, drove gasoline from Lincoln, Nebraska to McPherson, Kansas.
“He would put coins in the nickelodeon (old-time jukebox) and played ‘You Are My Sunshine’ over and over and over for me. It drove my boss crazy and she told me that she’d take the nickelodeon out of there as she was so sick of hearing that song, but because it made her money, she kept it,” Neuteboom said.
The two skipped over the border to Belleville, Kansas to marry in November 1943, stopping on the way back to pick up her clothes.
“I wore an old dress, and I didn’t have but cardboard boxes for my clothes. So, we put the boxes on the fender of his old Ford Model T truck, the one with a crank, and we went to his folks’ house in Lincoln,” she said. “He carried my clothes in a bedroom and then he left to drive to McPherson. He didn’t even stay the night when we got married, so I’m thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’ But his mother had a heart of gold.”
Neuteboom’s granddaughter, Barbara Clegg, remembers her grandfather. “Grandpa was a good man. He did everything and anything Grandma asked.”
Shortly after getting married, Neuteboom worked selling perfumes and powders at the cosmetic counter at Woolworth’s 5 & 10 before the first two of her five children were born.
Unable to serve in the war, Shank moved the family to Denver for his job. In the 1950s, about the time Elvis became an international sensation, they moved again to their home in Kearns, where she still resides.
“We were so poor, we had to borrow $100 from the neighbors for the down payment of the house, but I love it here,” Neuteboom said, adding that she enjoyed Elvis’ hymns more than his rock ‘n roll, and usually listened to Marty Robbins and Charley Pride on the radio.
Once settled, they purchased a television. She enjoyed watching one of John Wayne’s “pictures.”
In 1978, Shank died. When it came time to sell his car — as she never learned to drive — a “handsome” gentleman came to check it out.
“He came over to look at the car, but he looked at her and that was that; he was a nice man,” her granddaughter Barbara Clegg said.
Neuteboom smiled, then told a different version of the story.
“I babysat in my home, so I had met him before when he brought over a child for me to babysit. But when he was sitting behind the steering wheel, I don’t know what came over me, I kissed him on the cheek and we went from there,” she said.
She and Earl “Neut” Neuteboom married at the nearby Methodist church and spent the next 15 years together before he died.
She inherited good genes — her mother lived to age 95, brother Eddie to 100, and the last of her living siblings, sister Arlene, died six months ago at age 93. She has found that one of the “rewards” of long life is that she has outlived some of those closest to her — spouses, friends and even a child.
So, Neuteboom treasures the time she has — even though she relies on others at times.
“I used to work in the yard 24-7, but my son doesn’t want me out there doing it anymore,” she said. “I did go out there last week though and weeded. He didn’t know until afterward. I had friends, who called me Birdie, and they’d pick me up so I could sing with the church choir or at the senior citizens center and we’d go to the theater or to restaurants with the Red Hats (Society), but they’ve moved or are deceased.”
Neuteboom said being active is the key to a long life.
“Just don’t sit in a chair 24-7. Keep your mind occupied. Do your own housework or yardwork if you can. Keep yourself busy,” she said. “I don’t get out and exercise or walk to the church as much as I’d like, first with COVID and now the heat, but I at least walk around my home.”
When Neuteboom does relax in a recliner, she enjoys playing Solitaire on an iPad, “I think it’s a lot of baloney schools don’t have textbooks and just use computers now;” reads Nora Roberts’ and Mary Higgins Clark’s books, “I don’t need the large print;” cares for her canary Dino, “for Dean Martin;” does needlework, “most every kid, grandkid and great has something I’ve made;” colors inside the lines in adult coloring books, “she has a steady hand;” and puts together 500-piece “picture puzzles,” sometimes joined by some of her eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Other times they’ll enjoy the cottage cheese dumplings that her mother used to make back in Nebraska or her new love, eating Popeyes’ chicken.
“I love her hugs; I love to cuddle with her and doing puzzles with her,” said great-granddaughter Megan Clegg, who is attending Sunset Middle and hopes “Nana” can come see her in the school musical this fall.
A centennial birthday party is planned, with family coming from as far as Minnesota for the occasion. Barbara Clegg is planning to have a white cake, as her grandmother wishes, and will put on 10, not 100 candles.
“She’ll have one candle per decade; I’m not sending the cake on fire,” Clegg said.
Neuteboom said she’s content.
“I don’t need anything. I don’t feel like I’m almost 100 years old. I don’t think I would have done anything differently in my life. I know what hard work is and I taught myself a lot. I really have had a good life, a blessed one,” she said. “If I had to have one wish, I’d want all my family to celebrate with me.”