NORTH TONAWANDA – If the secret to a long life could be bottled, Helen Allen of North Tonawanda would surely be a millionaire. Born on March 9, 1908, she will soon celebrate her 107th birthday.
A good German meat-and-potatoes diet and an upbringing on the family farm seem to be some of her magic keys to a long life, along with genetics. Her grandfather, Adam Kaiser, came to the area as a German immigrant and lived in the Tonawandas until his death at age 76 in 1913. Her mother, Laura Kaiser Walter, died at age 86 in 1969.
In fact, Allen’s “baby sister” Marian Supparits , age 97, still lives nearby in the City of Tonawanda.
Allen also benefits from a good disposition. She was full of smiles during a recent chat in her tidy house in North Tonawanda. She is still able to live independently, including cooking and cleaning for herself, and said she gets out to church regularly at Salem United Church of Christ.
She has console television that is more than 20 years old that she rarely watches, preferring to use her time writing letters, reading or doing crossword puzzles.
“I don’t have a computer. I would spend too much time on it if I had one,” she said. “I like to have my things on paper so I can see them.”
Her first husband, Arnold F. Wildt, died at age 55, and after 13 years as a widow, Allen remarried and traveled across the world in her 70s with her second husband, J. Lester Allen, a retired North Tonawanda pharmacist. His late first wife had been a friend of hers and they were friends at church. The two went to South America twice, to Europe and the Maritimes, as well as to California, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains.
“He was 70 and I was 68. We thought we might get five years together, but we got very lucky. Instead we had 27. He lived until one hour before his 97th birthday,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, I feel I’ve had a very good life.”
Allen admits things were not always easy, especially after her father, George Walter, died at age 55. She was 20 at the time.
“There was no Social Security or help or anything and these three kids (her younger siblings) had to be fed and sent to school,” she explained.
“I wanted to be a teacher, but then my father got sick,” Allen said. At her mother’s urging Allen went to Bryant & Stratton Business Institute to become a secretary and worked in finance at DuPont.
“I was very happy with my job. I started in the accounting (department) and was head of the stenographic group there. (The accounting department) moved to Wilmington and I transferred to the research department. I worked for very well-educated people and you learned a lot,” she said.
Her first husband worked as a “tabulating man” at DuPont, a job she admits would be done mostly by a computer today, but back then it was a complicated “monstrous machine,” which she said reminded her of a furnace.
Allen has one daughter, Carolyn Byrnes, who is 68 and lives in Colorado, and four grandchildren.
Her memory is razor sharp and she recently sat down to share some of her memories of the past 100 years.
What do people always ask you?
They always want to know why you’ve lived so long. All I can say is that I work hard and (my motto is) – What you can’t change, live with it. I don’t get mad.
Did you grow up in North Tonawanda?
I was born in North Tonawanda. In fact, I was born on Webster Street, across the street from the Riviera. My grandfather owned the building and there was a plumbing shop on the first floor. My parents (George and Laura Walter) lived in the upper flat. They had their horse in town.
You see, Webster Street is all business buildings, but there was a barn behind the building and the horse and carriage were in the barn.
I don’t think many people remember those days.
Well, that was the only way they could get around.
Did you grow up in North Tonawanda?
My parents moved out and we lived on a farm in the Town of Tonawanda on Military Road. It’s a business place now with building supplies, but it was all farmland back then. We lived on the first farm after the city line.
Did you work on the farm?
Oh, yes. If there’s a man short, you pitched the hay.
What changes did you see as you grew up ?
We got an automobile. I think it was in 1918, but you could only drive it in the summer. You would put it up on blocks during the winter. The roads wouldn’t have been plowed like they are now. We saw the planes come. About when I was high-school age we had the war (World War I). They had a little airfield up on Military Road. I never got a ride, but my sister got a ride in one of the planes.
So you’ve lived through two world wars.
Plus all the other wars. World War II – it affected me more because my husband went into the war. He survived it, luckily. I don’t know how he did. He was in the Navy.
You said luckily he survived.
He was in the invasions. They were loaded up with gasoline and ammunition to go on the invasion of Saipan and they were doing some welding and a spark set something off. They had three ships blow up in Pearl Harbor. This was after the Japanese bombing. His ship got blown up, but he was able to swim away. But there was gasoline on the water and it was burning. But you don’t know what would have happened to him if he had gone to Saipan.
Did you work?
I graduated from high school, Tonawanda High School in 1926, and I went to Bryant & Stratton in the secretary course in September and started to work for DuPont in 1928. I had better than 20 years service there.
Why did you leave?
I got pregnant. In those days you didn’t work when you got pregnant. You got laid off. The day that you told them, you resigned. The main company said they were afraid you’d fall.
Do you think it’s a good idea to keep your mind active in order to live a long life?
Yes. I’ve been fortunate to keep my mind.
How about a glass of wine?
That’s fine, too. I’ve never been a drinker, but I don’t think a glass of wine hurts anybody.
You are fortunate you can still live in your own home.
I’ve had this house since 1976. As long as I have a little help to take me to the doctor and buy my groceries. I can still cook.
What do you like to make?
Brownies, but not from a box, that costs more. I use a recipe back from 1930.
What’s the best invention you’ve seen in the past 100 years?
The thing I appreciate most is electricity. You wouldn’t think of that, but we were living on the farm and had no electricity, no gas. You had wood fires and outdoor plumbing. You had to read by a little oil lamp.
What advice would you give your younger self?
My only advice is to live the kind of a life you should. I was brought up in a religious family and you just acquire the right things to do. You try to treat people like you want to be treated yourself.
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