In 1912, the Republic of China was proclaimed, New Mexico and Arizona became the 47th and 48th states of the United States, the Girl Scouts were founded, the Titanic sank, Fenway Park opened in Boston, Woodrow Wilson was elected president and Mildred Harmon of Windsor Heights was born on May 4 on her family’s farm near St. Charles.
“I guess that makes me kind of old,” says Harmon, 101, with a smile.
Harmon, the daughter of John and Dora Haynes, recalls life in the country, as well as important names and dates with clarity. She also has developed a keen wit and sense of humor over the years, which she displayed when the timing was right during our conversation with her and daughter, Mary Johnson of Des Moines, in late September.
“I had an older sister, Leona, and we went to a country school,” says Harmon. “We went to my dad’s school, which was built during the 1800s, and he was born in 1878.”
Johnson says her mother started school at age 4 so her older sister, who was 6 years old at the time she enrolled, wouldn’t have to walk to school alone.
“Mother would walk her older sister to school and spend the day at school, then walk back with her older sister. After a couple of weeks, my grandmother was to cease her school attendance to wait a couple of years to begin to school, but the teacher told my grandmother to leave her there, that she was doing just fine,” Johnson says. “Mother reported to me that even if they told her she couldn’t go to school that she was going, no matter what.”
Harmon graduated from St. Charles High School in 1928 at age 16. A few years later, she enrolled in beauty school, where she graduated with top honors.
“It didn’t do me a bit of good because I’m still ugly,” says Harmon, with a laugh.
For the next four to five years, Harmon worked as a hairstylist in Knoxville and Des Moines. She married Paris Harmon on Dec. 20, 1936, during a civil service officiated by the justice of the peace.
“I still have the dress that I wore that day. It’s not a wedding dress, it’s the dress I got married in by the justice of the peace,” Harmon says. “We went to the justice of the peace because it was a lot cheaper.”
Five years later, Harmon and her husband started a family that would include three daughters: Vonis Anne Miller, Johnson and the late Susan J. Fox. (Today she has seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.) She stayed home while her husband worked, and the couple settled into a home on 47th Street in Des Moines, south of Douglas Avenue, before the start of World War II.
“I remember streetcars in Des Moines during that time. When I got married, I got a car. I think it probably was a Ford,” she says. “My parents had a Model T Ford. It was the first car that I remember as a child because it didn’t have any springs, and when you were driving down a country road it rode like country wagon.”
She says gas was less than 30 cents per gallon when she eventually got her own car. Like her parents, she usually drove used vehicles.
“I remember my parents buying a 1957 Buick, and I remember them having a car that had side curtains on it,” she says.
Today, a 2001 Chevy Impala sits in her garage, though Harmon hasn’t driven it the last six years.
“Dad always bought Chevys, and he paid cash for them,” says Johnson. “He was very conservative and would save money for things like cars.”
Like most kids her age, Harmon walked to school.
“I started when I was 4 years old and walked a mile-and-a-quarter round trip to school. Kids today would die if they had to do that,” she says, laughing.
When asked what she paid for bread, milk and eggs when she was first married, Harmon couldn’t answer the question.
“My husband took care of all the grocery shopping,” she says. “He lived in Valley Junction, and he and his family worked very hard.”
The couple met while working at Armstrong Tire and Rubber in Des Moines.
“He was quite shy,” says Harmon. “About five months later after we started dating, I decided if I couldn’t rope him in I’d give up. He was just a nice guy.”
Paris Harmon was 42 days younger than his bride, and he worked at Armstrong in the receiving department as a superintendent. He stayed with the company for 42 years before retiring at age 59.
“I never knew his position with the company until I was in high school,” says Johnson. “They never talked about their work; they were just that way. Over the years, I would run into people who told me that they worked for him and liked him.”
Harmon says she loved her husband even though they didn’t share the same hobbies. He liked baseball and fishing. She liked gardening, canning vegetables and needlepoint.
“My husband was a baseball nut. He was a frustrated baseball player who played for a team in Valley Junction when he was maybe 19 years old, but I didn’t think he was probably too good at baseball because he couldn’t run very good.”
Johnson recalls her mother reading to her and her sister each night at bedtime.
“She would read a Bible story and a book to us every night,” she says.
Harmon and her husband moved their family to Windsor Heights in 1985. She says the town has not changed much over the years.
“My husband bought this place because he wanted to live here,” she says. “I love it here, too.”
Harmon’s husband died at home on Valentine’s Day in 2006 at the age of 93. Though the loss was deeply saddening to the family, Johnson says her mother has done a remarkable job of carrying on without him.
“I’ve never seen her depressed,” she says. “She never complains; she doesn’t dwell on negative things. She’s always even tempered, and she’s been my confidant over the years. She’s intelligent and very sharp.
“Mom is just very special in my life. She leaves me a lot to be thankful for.”
Harmon admits that she doesn’t exercise, citing the fact that having walked untold miles to school over the years in her youth was “enough walking.”
Conversely, she doesn’t smoke, drink or indulge in other bad habits.
“Why would I smoke? My father smoked cigars, and you could see the blue haze from the smoke in the living room every night. It was awful,” she says. “As for exercise, it’s for people who don’t have anything else to do. I hate exercising.”
So what does Harmon attribute to her longevity and good health after 101 years?
“I’m just stubborn. That’s how I get along,” she says, with a smile that suggests there is more to her answer than meets the eye.
These days, Harmon passes the time completing crossword puzzles, crocheting, reading books and magazines and watching her favorite television shows like “Keeping Up Appearances” and “Dr. Phil.”
“I’ve never been an athlete; I like to read, and I’ll read anything, though I really like history,” she says.
Her daughter says that her love of reading and playing Scrabble represents her love of words and writing. Harmon wrote a poem for a friend years ago that Johnson has held onto.
“She was 80 when she wrote it, and she said she would part with the world at 90 but she’s still here. She’s been to California a few times, too. She’s lived a good life, and we’re so proud of her,” says Johnson.
Spend a few minutes talking to Harmon and you will deduce that perhaps the key to her happiness and longevity is her evolved sense of humor, which often has a self-deprecating tone. For that, she credits her father.
“Having a sense of humor is the only way to get through life,” she says. “I remember going to a country church when I was little and seeing the looks on people’s faces; they were so grim looking. My dad would find something funny in anything. If I didn’t have my dad, I wouldn’t have been able to get through life.”