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Saturday, April 20, 2024

One Hundred Years of Life

Two Evansville centenarians share the experiences that defined their lives

What was Evansville like 100 years ago? Benjamin Bosse High School opened for class on Evansville’s East Side in January 1924. The city’s first radio station, WGBF AM, was in its inaugural year of broadcasting. The first formal baseball team at Evansville College — now the University of Evansville — debuted that April.

The U.S. careened from the Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression to World War II, one decade after another. There are few people in Evansville today who were alive through it all. Marilyn Stone, 101, and Helen Thomas, 102, are among them.

Many would help with the war effort. That is just what Helen did. Born in 1921 as one of eight siblings, Helen Wildt grew up on a farm near Howell Wetlands in Evansville’s Union Township. Her family lived close to Burdette Park, where Helen and her friends often went ice skating in the winter. She left school in the eighth grade and later earned her GED. Employed by the Indiana Bell Telephone Company, Helen started as a switchboard operator and moved up to multi-line PBX operator. Working split shifts, she walked 32 blocks to and from work Downtown each day.

“I’ve had a busy life,” Helen says.

She and her sister, Evelyn, 104, constructed P-47 Thunderbolt planes for Republic Aviation during World War II. Helen installed medical kits for pilots in the cockpits and built propeller blades in the hangars.

Helen and her husband, Edmund, met at Burdette Park’s roller-skating rink and married in 1943. After the war, they moved to Miami, Florida, where Helen worked for Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company and Ed was employed as a foreman at Aluminum Fabrications. The couple moved back to Evansville after two years because Helen missed her relatives.

Resettling in Indiana, the couple had two daughters, Sandy and Cheril, and Helen stayed home to raise them before attending the former Tri-State Beauty College at age 38. After graduating, Helen worked as a beautician for 10 years out of an added room in the couple’s home. Ed remodeled houses and was a foreman for Whirlpool and Sterling Brewery.

Retired by age 50, Helen spent much of the rest of her 63-year marriage to Ed traveling. They visited all but four states via motorcoach and traveled to Canada, Mexico, and Cuba. The couple went on four cruises and toured 10 European countries.

Their travels produced memorable experiences. Upon climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, “I was scared to death that thing was going to fall while I was up there,” Helen says.

Afraid of heights, Helen defied her fear by summiting the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, and the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington, during her adventures with Ed. He placed six love letters in random drawers throughout their home, which she found after he passed in 2006. Helen never remarried.

“We had a lot of good times together,” she says.

Eighteen years later, Helen has made a life for herself. At Solarbron, a CarDon-brand senior living center on Evansville’s West Side, she often decorates the hallways and, though using a walker, she gets around fine.

“I never thought I’d reach this age,” she says. “I’ve had such a good life.”

Looking back, some of Helen’s favorite memories include dancing at the former Club Trocadero — which became famous in the 1940s for its active nightlife — and the Eagles Club. Her advice for a long and healthy life is to exercise.

Marilyn Stone’s advice is, “Have fun — just not too much fun.”

Daughter Janet Raisor says her mother has lived a healthy life, despite her dementia diagnosis at age 95. Marilyn had three children with her first husband, Robert Oldenburg, who died in 1979. Their son, John Oldenburg, passed away in 2007. Youngest child Anne Brady lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Born in 1922, Marilyn is the daughter of W.C. Bussing Sr., the late president of the Evansville Printing Corporation, which brought the Courier and the Press newspapers under one ownership team. Several generations of her father’s family have lived in Evansville. Her nephew, Bill Bussing, owns the Evansville Otters Frontier League baseball team.

Though she lived in Denver, Colorado, and Baltimore, Maryland, for brief periods growing up, Marilyn returned to Evansville and attended Reitz Memorial High School for two years. Like Helen, Marilyn loved to dance, so when she heard kids at Bosse got to dance at lunch, she had to go herself. After graduating from Bosse, she earned a bachelor’s degree in education from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Once her children started school, Marilyn became a substitute teacher with the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp.

Growing up, Raisor remembers family dinner every night, and she and her siblings were not allowed to watch TV until they finished their homework. That said, all gathered in Robert and Marilyn’s bedroom to watch The Beatles make their first performance before American audiences on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February 1964. The family often took road trips, driving all night to reach Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Aspiring for her children to succeed in life, Janet says her mother often told her and her siblings that they “had to be able to do something when they got out of college.” Janet, who lives in Evansville, serves as interim foundation director with Ascension St. Vincent. Anne works as an accountant. Before he passed, their brother John was a technology sales executive in Seattle, Washington.

When Robert died after 32 years of marriage, Marilyn took his place as president of Building Products Co. She met her second husband, Norbert Stone, while at the mall with mutual friends. They hit it off and married in 1986, moving to Naples, Florida, where their family — which featured Norb’s nine children from his first marriage, including SS&C Technologies founder Bill Stone — often visited. Marilyn and Norb were married for 23 years before he passed away in 2009.

Marilyn has been an avid reader and an excellent bridge player. She often sent her children newspaper article clippings that pertained to their interests and careers. Throughout her life, she traveled with both of her husbands, including a honeymoon in Cuba with Robert.

Anne says her mother “stays positive and never complains with the twists and turns in life.” Following her son John’s path, she has kept up with changing technology.

“She never needed a cell phone, but she did learn how to email,” Anne says.

Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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