Through the eyes of the wise
Local elders share their life stories
By Carla Iacovetti 06/30/2011
“The oldest trees often bear the sweetest fruit.” – German proverb
In many cultures around the globe, the elderly are an honored and respected group in society. Even though the trend here in America seems to bend toward youth and all the exuberance younger ages provide, the elderly play an important role within community life — they are filled with story after story and reflect a lifetime journey. Their wisdom and experience allow for a larger perspective on life and can be a natural educational experience when spending time with them.
According to Professor Dilip Jeste of the University of California, San Diego, “Older people are less likely to respond thoughtlessly to negative emotional stimuli because their brains have slowed down.” This development is more commonly known as “wisdom.”
In the hopes that accrued life experience might offer a treasure chest of stories, I became the listener and had the privilege of spending time with a few of Ventura’s oldest “trees.”
A man of science
Howard Boroughs, Ph.D. was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1913, when Brooklyn was just farmland. In 1921, when Boroughs was barely 8 years old, his father, a businessman, moved the family to Los Angeles. Boroughs has a vivid recollection of growing up in Los Angeles, especially after his father lost his business in 1931 as a result of the Great Depression. In a flash, the 98-year-old articulately recounted graduating from high school, joining and serving in the United States Navy overseas, getting married to the “gal of his dreams” and returning to Los Angeles with his beautiful bride in 1934. Boroughs was a biochemist and taught at UCLA. The couple lived in Los Angeles until he took a position to do research at the Université Paris-Sorbonne, but the fellowship only lasted a year and they returned to UCLA.
In 1954, when the United States shot off its first H-bomb, there were many concerns about radiation in the water.
“The government gave a contract to the University of Hawaii for research, but no one on the faculty was competent, so one of my colleagues from UCLA suggested that I apply, and I was hired within the hour!” said Borough. He spent four years as a research scientist at the University of Hawaii until his wife became ill from living in the tropics.
Boroughs has lived an out-of-the-ordinary, exhilarating and dedicated life. Some of his accomplishments include: Working as the program director for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Washington, D.C. He was the vice president of Academic Affairs at Portland State University during the Vietnam War. Boroughs was the director of research for five years at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly), and he was in charge of President Eisenhower’s program Atoms for Peace in Costa Rica for four years, researching radiation and plant mutations during the Cold War.
Boroughs admits that he did not care much for working at NSF, and the job only lasted one year. “The contrast between working with the scientists at the NSF and the Bureau of Higher Education was frustrating. I quit after a year.
I just couldn’t take it anymore!”
After Boroughs retired from Cal Poly, he and his wife embraced retirement and headed down the coast to Ventura.
Boroughs said, “We had family ties in West L.A. and Van Nuys and were tired of driving to Southern California from San Luis, so we chose to move to Ventura and bought a lovely home in Ventura proper.”
Howard Boroughs is celebrated here in Ventura. Ventura College library was named after Evelyn and Howard Boroughs, and the Museum of Ventura County named both the Evelyn and Howard Boroughs Great Hall and the Howard and Evelyn Boroughs Garden after the couple.
“I had a wonderful marriage to Evelyn for 66 years. We had no children, but we were very happy,” he said.
Boroughs enjoys his life at Cypress Place Senior Living here in Ventura. He enjoys surfing the Web, dates with his lady friend (who is significantly younger), and he is still fairly active politically. He is concerned with global affairs and is a green environmental activist who is vehemently against nuclear power plants. “Perhaps I know too much. Storing radioisotopes is problematic,” he said.
Boroughs has a lot to say about society today, and has no problem making historical comparisons. “Of course, none of this will affect me …. I’ll be long gone, but I can tell you … we’re living in a totally different world now. It’s global.
The Congress doesn’t run the country, but about 20,000 lobbyists do. During the Great Depression, we could see light at the end of the tunnel, but I don’t see light today. It’s frightful.”
Helped build the Hoover Dam
Bill Mitchell was born in Cortez, Colo., on May 21, 1909, making him 102 years old. Mitchell’s 101-year-old sister Edith is still alive, living in a senior citizens’ home in Santa Barbara. The son of a blacksmith, who was instrumental in making cages for the Los Angeles Zoo, his family moved to Glendale when Mitchell was around 2 years old. Mitchell has a lot of fond zoo-related memories, including hanging out with his best friend, who was the son of the zoo superintendent. He enjoyed spending time around the animals at the zoo, and he is still an animal lover today.
Jessie lived a few blocks from Mitchell and used to roller-skate by his house. Years later she roller-skated right into his arms when he married her at age 21, and they were blessed with three sons.
Mitchell was very happy that he missed the draft. “I was too old for the draft, and became a heavy equipment operator instead,” he said. Mitchell worked for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power most of his adult life.
“I frequently traveled to Boulder City for the job. I remember staying at camps that were similar to army camps. We built the transmission line from L.A. to Boulder City. This was before we had good highways,” he said. Mitchell also helped to build the Hoover Dam and was there when the power was first turned on. It was an exhilarating and unforgettable experience.
Mitchell came to Ventura to retire. He and his wife Jessie used to love to travel in their motor home, taking trips all across the United State and into Canada. She passed away at 80. Mitchell currently lives at Bonaventure Senior Living and is grateful for having a good life.
The world is a changin’
John Houston was born on Feb. 3, 1916, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and made his way to Ventura County when he retired. “I liked the area,” he said. “I was sick of the snow.”
Houston was in the wholesale grocery business and admits that things have changed tremendously. Houston and his wife landed in Oxnard more than 30 years ago.
“There was very little in Ventura, and Five Points was the beginning of Oxnard,” he said. “Houses were only just beginning to be built. At that time, there was only 30,000 people living in Ventura.
“I can’t believe my age,” he said. “I don’t get to see the changes anymore because I’ve been legally blind for about 12 years, but I know they’re happening.” Houston was amazed at the changes years ago when he could see them, and cannot imagine how different things must be today.
Houston had no qualms about voicing his concerns and sharing his views about the economy. “I’m apprehensive about the economy and the men in our government,” he said. “I wonder how they got there. The Great Depression was horrible, but the war pulled us out. I don’t see immediate recovery in the horizon and that’s concerning.”
Houston said that he has had a good life and enjoys senior living at Bonaventure Senior Living. “I like good music. The Big Band Era is my favorite. I wish it were still popular.”
Healthy Helen Keller
Helen Keller Baker was born in Pasadena, Calif., on January 16, 1914 and no one would ever believe that she is approaching 98 years of age. She could easily pass for 75. Baker laughed as she talked about marrying a man she met on a blind date.
“A mutual friend arranged the date,” she said. “We were both attending the University of California, Berkeley. I was an undergraduate majoring in history, and he was getting his master’s degree.” Throughout their married life Baker’s husband thought it was amusing that he had a blind date with Helen Keller. “We were happily married for 50 years and had two children: Stephen, who lives in Monrovia; and Susan, who lives in Santa Barbara.”
Baker has been an exercise enthusiast and healthy eater all of her life; and it has certainly paid off. “I’ve always exercised,” she said. Baker believes having a healthy attitude and taking care of your body is vitally important. “I’ve avoided white sugar and white flour all of my life. In fact, I’m still in exercise classes. I’m afraid to quit!” Baker does yoga every morning at the Bonaventure Senior Living Community and loves it. “My favorite thing to do is dance, but everyone here is too old, so yoga will have to do!
“I have a poem called ‘Attitude,’ ” she said. “I don’t know who wrote it, but it tells me that only I am responsible for my attitude – nobody else is! Do you know I still have my original teeth? I feel my diet is responsible.”
Baker has one grandson who is 26 and wants to stay alive for him. “I just want to see what he’s doing with his life. My son-in-law is going to throw me a party when I turn 100, and I believe I’m going to make it!”
Baker enjoys living a healthy, active life at 97. Grinning from ear to ear, she assertively said, “I have a gentleman friend in my life and that really helps. We sleep together, and my doctor said I’m his caretaker. We both benefit from the relationship. I tell him to eat his eggs.”
Erma Favalessa was born in San Francisco, Calif., in March 1915. The 96-year-old moved to Ventura County nine months ago and loves living here. “At my age, I hope I can live a little longer to enjoy it!” she said. “Everyone here is so congenial and helpful.”
Favalessa was married 69 years, and lived primarily in San Mateo. She has two children, four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, spanning from 19 to 1-years old. Her son lives in Stevenson Ranch in Simi Valley and frequently visits her. In her spare time, Favalessa enjoys knitting Afghans for her church (Newhall Presbyterian) back in the Bay Area. “So far, I’ve made about 75 afghans for the church. I used to be able to whip one out in about a week, but now they take me three weeks to make,” she said.
Old-fashioned at 94
Helen Schrumpf was born in Wichita, Kan. on Jan. 30, 1917, and has been living in Ventura since 1985, when her husband retired. “I never wanted anyone else to move here after I came here for fear that it would change, and boy has it changed,” she said.
Schrumpf was married for 61 years to a college professor who taught business and psychology. The Schrumpfs followed their daughter to Ventura and loved it so much they never wanted to leave.
Schrumpf is sweet, gentle and soft-spoken and loves to help people. While she has a positive, upbeat mindset, she admits to having many concerns about society today.
“I suppose I’m old-fashioned at 94, but the moral decline is simply dreadful to me,” She said. “I am very disappointed in the film and television industries, and I hold them somewhat accountable for the moral decline.”
Having “great faith” keeps her from personally worrying about things, but she does have concerns for society and what is happening in the economy. Schrumpf said, “I know the economy and lack of morality doesn’t concern me personally at this time, but I am concerned for my children and grandchildren. Society has changed so much.”
One of Schrumpf’s biggest concerns is the lack of love for God and country in this land. She sees a strong moral and spiritual decline that she thinks is “sad.” Schrumpf admits that her spiritual beliefs undoubtedly play a huge roll in how she views the world, and her beliefs keep her happy and helpful. “I cannot imagine life without faith.”
“I love people, I love being here, and I think most people enjoy me,” she said with a great big smile. In her spare time, she likes to play piano for whomever will listen at Bonaventure Senior Living. “My mother was a piano teacher and taught me to play.”
Spanish American philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist George Santayana once said, “Old places and old persons in their turn, when spirit dwells in them, have an intrinsic vitality of which youth is incapable, precisely, the balance and wisdom that come from perspectives and broad foundations.”
Thanks to Howard Boroughs, Bill Mitchell, John Houston, Helen Keller Baker, Erma Favalessa and Helen Schrumpf for sharing a little piece of their lives, their amazing vitality, balance and wisdom that have come from a life well spent.