At the age of 103, Marge Wallace has learned to appreciate the simple things in life. When she celebrates her 104th birthday on Oct. 15, she isn’t asking for much: a Jim Beam highball, a trip to the casino and perhaps some cake to celebrate with her friends and neighbors at Woodlands Creek Active Retirement Community in Clive.
“I haven’t really thought about it too much,” she says.
If things go as planned that day, Wallace will get her wish.
“We have a trip scheduled to Prairie Meadows, and we want to take her,” says Jasna Beganovic, lifestyle coordinator at Woodlands Creek Active Retirement Community. “Our plan is to let Marge and some of the residents do some gambling for about an hour or less, then have a little surprise birthday party for her in the lobby if she’s up to it.”
Wallace and Beganovic both arrived at Woodlands Creek 10 years ago and have become fast friends.
“Marge came from an assisted living community, but she does a remarkable job of getting around on her own and is very funny,” says Beganovic. “She always makes my day. Some days she looks like she’s a little tired, then two seconds later she’s joking with me. She’s adorable, and she’s one-of-a-kind.”
Wallace was born on Oct. 15, 1909, in Edgemont, S.D., a small town nestled in the southwestern corner of the state near the Wyoming border. Her parents’ names were Lillian and John. Her younger sister, Geraldine, shared her Oct. 15 birthday and was born three years later.
She says she has lived in Iowa “forever,” but doesn’t recall when she and her family moved to the Hawkeye State. Some names and dates escaped her the day we visited with Wallace, though she remembers some moments with clarity.
“My favorite childhood memory was when I would go to my grandmother’s house. We used to go there an awful lot. She lived on the south side of Des Moines, and she had a cuddly dog. He’d wait for us and sit there. I was never a lover of dogs, but I loved that dog,” she says.
Wallace says she spent most of her life living on the south side, graduating from Lincoln High School in the 1920s. She and her husband, Walter, built a house on Park Avenue where the couple raised their only child, Jack.
“Later on, I lived there for 20 years by myself,” says Wallace. “My son wanted me to get out of the house and move here. I like it here. They’re nice to me.”
Wallace says her first job was working in the accounting department for Northwestern Bell Telephone Company in Des Moines. The earliest documented telephone exchange in Northwestern Bell territory was opened by the Western Union Company in Keokuk on Sept. 1, 1878.
“My uncle worked for them, and he got me the job,” she says. “It paid $12.50 per week, and we worked Monday through Friday and a half day on Saturdays.”
Wallace says she worked for the telephone company until she was married. After her first husband died, she says she didn’t get married again until she was in her 40s. Her son also got married around that same time.
Between marriages, Wallace worked for Allis Chalmers, manufacturers of farm tractors in Des Moines, where she earned $80 per month as a bookkeeper.
“I worked for 13 years for them, but I had to quit when my husband worked for them because a husband and wife couldn’t work for the same company,” Wallace says. “So I went to work for the City of Des Moines and did payroll work for them.”
Years later, she says, Wallace left her job at the city to stay home “for a while.” She soon grew restless and found work at various local companies with the help of an employment agency.
“The job I remember is the one at Betts Cadillac. They sent me there because the books hadn’t been balanced in three months. They liked me, so I worked there for a while,” she says.
She says she and her husband paid $1,800 for the parcel of land upon which they built their home on Park Avenue in 1950, and the materials to build the house cost about $15,000.
“It was an unusual home at the time. It had one story in the front and two stories in the back, but it was a good house,” Wallace says.
Wallace says she does not recall her first car, but that her last automobile she bought was a Chevrolet.
“I had to raise Jack on my own and didn’t know much about cars, so my boss helped me get a car. He told the car dealer to give me a car, and he could pick out a tractor in return. I picked out a Chevy coupe and Jack was thrilled. I think gas was 30 cents a gallon, if that. I only drove it to work,” she says.
The 103-year-old Clive woman says Greater Des Moines has changed for the better over the years. She recalls when the Des Moines International Airport was built (1933) and remembers a time before Fleur Drive existed.
“When I was in high school, I dated a guy whose family had a farm west of where the airport is now, but they sold it so they could build the airport,” she says.
Wallace says she and her son and daughter-in-law were friends with Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller and his family. Her daughter-in-law lived in Van Meter, Feller’s hometown, and shot pool at their house. When her son was in the military and traveled to Cleveland, the legendary pitcher once gave him a private tour of the stadium where his Cleveland Indians team played.
“Bob Feller was a friend,” she says.
Wallace has outlived many of her friends, so she passes some of the time watching television. She enjoys watching tennis matches and says Serena Williams is her favorite player.
She has a cell phone, but most days she stays in her apartment, except when visiting friends at the clubhouse at Woodlands Creek.
In 1909, the year Wallace was born, British explorer Ernest Shackleton discovered the magnetic South Pole; United States troops left Cuba after being there since the Spanish-American War of 1898 and later the U.S. military purchased the world’s first military airplane from the Wright Brothers; author Eudora Welty (died 2001) and entertainer Benny Goodman (died 1986) were born; Apache leader Geronimo died; and Ty Cobb led the Detroit Tigers to victory the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series.
Yet Wallace says the more things change, the more things stay the same.
“Things change so gradually you don’t make an issue of it. You have to go with the flow,” she says.
As for the secret to a long and healthy life, Wallace attributes her success to years of hard work, exercise and following doctors’ orders.
“I was in my 40s when my doctor told me to have a Jim Beam highball every day. He told me to have one ounce of Jim Beam, and that’s all I’ve ever had each day. I think the highball does me good,” she says. “Are you surprised to hear me say that?”
Beganovic says her friend enjoys a small glass of wine each night with her dinner, and if she can’t sleep she plays the card game solitaire.
“I buy her Rose Burgundy Wine; that’s her favorite,” she says.
For fun, Wallace says she enjoys playing the 25-cent slot machines at Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino.
“That’s my favorite game,” she says.
Wallace says she does not recall who she voted for president of the United States the first time that she was eligible to vote, but her favorite president was Bill Clinton.
Over the years, Wallace has seen a number of changes in the world, but her sense of humor has been the one constant in her life.
“There’s no secret to living a long life, but I don’t recommend it,” she says with a laugh.