Iowa is home to a number of centenarians including Ankeny’s own Myrle Graves and Joe Keul, as well as almost-centenarian Mary Conkling, who will be 100 in November. They say life has changed through the course of the last century, and they shared their stories with Ankeny Living this month.
Joe Keul might be a man of few words, but the Ankeny centenarian seems to have figured out the secret to a long life — Joe will turn 101 on Christmas Day. He grew up on the south side of Des Moines and has spent his whole life in the metro.
Keul had six brothers and sisters in his family, and his dad worked as a machinist. He graduated from Lincoln High School, and was then drafted into the Navy. During World War II, he spent time in the Pacific aboard the USS Hersey, a troop transport ship.
Keul later married, and the couple had two children — Ralph and Janet. Both live nearby in Windsor Heights, and they visit frequently.
After the war, Keul went to Alaska and was one of the men who built the Alaskan Highway connecting Alaska to the lower 48 states. He spent the rest of his career as a teamster, organizing unions.
“Some people don’t want to be unionized, so you had to be a fighter,” Ralph says.
Keul’s real love, though, was the outdoors. He loved hunting and fishing when he was able, and his favorite “sport” these days is to sit and relax in the sun, with a good view of the outdoors.
“Hunting and fishing, that’s what kept me young,” he says.
Life at 100
Centenarian Myrle Graves was born in Oklahoma, but she moved to Iowa with her family when she was just a baby. They lived on a farm, she says, and her dad brought up horses and worked with machinery. She had three sisters and remembers the closeness of the rural communities. Everyone visited with one another, and everyone helped one another when they needed it.
“There was a family feeling in the country,” she says. “Farmers help each other, and so you visit, and it’s like one big family. If someone gets sick or hurt, the farmers come in and help. You didn’t think about ‘how much am I going to get paid?’ You did it because they helped you.”
The girls used to play games they made up themselves, she says, with nothing but a ball or a handkerchief as toys. They had no electricity for the first 20 years that they were on the farm, and no running water either. Graves remembers what a chore it was to take a bath — first filling up the rinse tub that was used to wash clothes, then placing it in front of the cook oven to get the water warm. Finally, they would take turns getting clean.
When Graves graduated high school at the age of 17, she wanted to be a teacher. So she went to Iowa State Teachers College (now UNI) in Cedar Falls for one term. Her uncle loaned her the $75 she needed for tuition, room and board. But the money ran out, and she couldn’t afford to continue her education. She soon married John Graves, and in 1931 the young couple moved to northwest Iowa to live on his family’s farm.
“President Roosevelt came in and made the law that you could take out a $300 loan, and the interest was something really small like 3 percent, and they’d give you 30 years to pay the farm off, so we signed up for that,” she says. “My grandson and great-grandson are still on the farm now. This is the sixth generation that has farmed that land.”
Graves says life was very difficult during their first year on the farm, but she was glad to be able to feed their four daughters. If it hadn’t been for a neighbor who knew her husband’s family, she says, she’s not sure they would have survived. The neighboring family raised potatoes, and they had extra, so they gave them to Graves and her family, and they lived on potatoes.
“Then someone gave us their hens, and we had eggs and potatoes, and we had apple trees,” she says. “That’s all we ate the first year. The next year wasn’t as bad. Then we got three cows and a few pigs, so we had milk, and we bought 100 chickens and raised them. They were fryers. That next year, we lived high off the hog.”
Graves’ husband died in 1985, but although she’s been alone for a number of years now, she’s not sad, she says.
“Our family is big and close knit,” she says.
She has two daughters still living — one in Arizona and one Minnesota. There are more than 60 grandkids, great-grandkids and great-great-grandkids. Her granddaughter lives in Ankeny, and she visits often and supplies Graves with ready-made meals. She still lives on her own in an assisted living apartment, and she says she’s happy.
“I’ve got good kids and grandkids, I tell you,” she says, getting misty. “I just have a marvelous family. I’m so thankful for that. Always make the best of it. It could always be worse. I always think you’re the richest woman in the world if you have love and health and companionship and all those wonderful things you can’t buy. That’s what’s important.”
Nearly a century
Ankeny resident Mary Conkling will turn 100 in November. The almost-centenarian is originally from Colorado, but her father moved west looking for a homestead and settled in the Burlington area.
She was the eighth child in a family of 10 children and remembers having to be self-sufficient at a very young age on the farm.
“By the time I was 5, I was old enough to dress myself and milk a cow,” she says. “We had a cow called Old Easy — the milk came out easier, so we learned on her. We squirted the milk to the cats. Our parents didn’t know, or they would have put a stop to that.”
The family made a living selling cream from the cows and eggs from the chickens they raised. Her mother had a huge garden, and she did a lot of canning and preserving, Conkling says. They lived at one corner of the section of land, so the children walked nearly two miles to school to the next corner of the section.
“Sometimes my brothers would carry me on their shoulders when I was little,” she says.
Conkling graduated from high school when she was 17 while there was a high demand for country schoolteachers. She borrowed money to go to Colorado Teachers’ College and began teaching immediately thereafter.
“I taught right out of high school at 17,” she says. “My first contract they said I had to satisfy the majority or forfeit my contract because I was only 17. There were 33 pupils in all eight grades, and I taught all eight grades. I could always go back there to teach.”
She recalls meeting her future husband at a party. She says the girls were in one bedroom and the boys were in another. They hung a tea towel over the door, and each boy and girl grabbed one side of the towel to see whom they’d be paired up with.
“That’s how I met the man I came to marry,” she says. She married her husband in 1933.
The couple had two girls, Joyce and Evelyn, and they moved to Missouri where he could learn rubber welding — the art of fixing up old tires. It wasn’t practical to be a farmer during the Dust Bowl days.
They spent 12 years in Missouri before her husband was promoted to district manager, and the couple moved to Iowa. Conkling says she continued teaching — including her own girls’ first grade class.
“When they had their school program, they had my daughter on stage reading from the eighth grade history book,” she says proudly. “They both loved to read, and they’d follow me around with their books. If they didn’t know a word, they’d spell it, and I’d tell them what it said.”
When it comes to advice, Conkling says it’s simple.
“Go with the flow, I guess,” she says. “And grab what opportunities come your way. You might not get them again.”