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Pagosan celebrates 100th birthday

Local resident Kathaleta (Hawkins) Wheeless is a spry, witty, congenial, knowledgeable lady who just happens to have turned 100 years old on July 31, 2010.

When asked the inevitable questions that everyone that age hears, “What do you attribute your longevity to, and what advice do you have for others younger than yourself?,” she answered in her philosophical way: “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, stay away from drugs and don’t abuse your body. You are the one who loses. Nobody else. Just live every day like it’s your last.” She said she never smoked, and while growing up she just didn’t have the money to splurge on some of the unhealthy) things that some kids had. These are not empty words. She has truly lived by them, and has led a full and active life. When asked if she thought she’d live to be 100 she laughed and said, “Heavens, no!”

She was born in Herford, Texas, and spent her childhood there on her family’s 10 acre farm. The family grew fruits, vegetables, and grapes, and raised chickens as well. Over the years their farm was their major food source, and the family gladly shared with others who were in need. She remembers one row in the garden that her father planted and tended for a local woman whose husband was killed in World War 1.

Farm work kept her and her brothers Thurman, Don and Bill, and her sister, Cosette, busy, but they still found time for fun and entertainment. She fondly remembers Sundays after church (her father was the local Methodist minister) with homemade ice cream. She enjoyed roller skating, playing marbles, and their two-seat swing. She said they didn’t have much money, stayed home more than children of today do, and learned quickly to make up their own games to play.

She loved her piano. One of her mother’s best friends gave piano lessons from the time she was in second grade. Kathaleta said she acquired her piano as the result of a sad situation. A little girl in their small town died, and that child’s mother wanted her piano to go to someone who would love and use it. The asking price was $100, and her family somehow managed the purchase. She played the piano for Sunday school classes, and continued playing until two years ago when she was 98.

Her dad taught her to drive the family Buick. It wasn’t that he wanted her “gadding about the countryside”, rather he said he didn’t want to have to unhitch the team of horses to take her mother all the places she wanted to go. He said her driving was doing him a favor. She continued driving until age 94. She chuckled when she said, “I only drove the routes I knew, and made sure I only had to make right turns.”

She loved going to school where her father served as principal (in addition to being a local minister.) Her favorite subjects were chemistry, biology, science in general, and math. The year she took geometry, she scored 100 percent on the year-end test. When called to the superintendent’s office she feared (like most kids) that she was in trouble, but instead he shook her hand and told her it was rare indeed that anyone could make a perfect score on such an exam. After graduation she attended the business college in Amarillo, Texas. She said money was tight, and she thought it was more important that her brother Billy be the one to go to a regular college.

She worked during the depression years. The man she worked for couldn’t afford to pay her, but she worked anyway. The office was on the eighth floor of an Amarillo building, and she remembers looking down and seeing all the men standing on the street corners, just hoping to pick up any kind of work. She worked for room and board in a boardinghouse. This is also where she met her future husband, D.B. She lamented, “I wouldn’t want anyone to have to live through the depression and the dust storms.”

Shortly after she and D.B. married on Aug. 5, 1939, they drove over Wolf Creek Pass. They spotted Bruce Spruce Ranch from the Overlook, and that sight is what started their long association and love affair with Pagosa Springs. They stayed in the cabins there at that time, and then brought their travel trailer and growing family to the ranch for many years. She said Judge Bruce had four or five cabins, and when people stayed there they had to chop their own wood, pump their own water, and rely on a generator for electricity. Of course renters provided all their own bedding, and had to use one of the three outhouses on the property. She said they made their reservations each August for the following year. She remembers when the property was sold by Judge Bruce to Chuck Ferris, and she talked about their long relationship with the Hinger family. She even remembers babysitting for Chris Hinger at one time.

RV travel with their children became a passion. Among her memories of travel with the kids, one stands out vividly. When son Barry (now a full-time Pagosa Springs resident with his wife, Treva) was about 2 years old, he was throwing rocks into Wolf Creek when he slipped and fell in. Kathaleta said there was no time for hesitation — she knew she had to run downstream, and pull him to safety before he reached wilder, wider and faster water of the San Juan. Only later did the fear for both of them set in.

Their RV traveling took them to many parts of the United States, Canada and Mexico in addition to parts of Colorado. Among the most interesting people they met in their travels was a couple who had escaped from the Nazis in World War II.

Naturally, she has seen a lot of changes in 100 years. She thinks television (their first black and white set purchased in 1953) probably had the most impact on her life since it brought the world to their home. She still enjoys television today, but with a flat screen model rather than a black and white. She likes any shows about science — galaxies, black holes, etc. She enjoys keeping up with events of all kinds throughout the world. She was admittedly a tomboy growing up, and her childhood love of her horse and sports has carried over to her television preferences as well. She especially enjoys watching golf and football.

Other significant inventions she mentioned are electricity, travel trailers, travel clubs and the telephone. She shared that when as a child the family had their first telephone installed, it only lasted until her father thought his wife was spending way too much time on the party line and decided to have it taken out. More recently, she used her computer until not long ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.

What does this Texas transplant think about living in Pagosa Springs? She says she has seen a lot of changes. First she was used to a small grocery in the middle of San Juan Street and Goodman’s as the main places to shop. Now she sees all kinds of shopping choices. But the mountains are the same, and she loves them. She says she loves the beautiful snow, but worries about the people who have to get out in it — shoveling, plowing, and driving. She voted in the last election, and to show she is truly a part of Pagosa Springs, she received a jury summons last year. She thinks that if her hearing would not have been a problem she would have enjoyed serving on that jury. She still loves reading, and is fond of the large print books that she gets from Ruby Sisson Library.

From her perspective, she says “I’m no different inside now than I was years ago.” From the perspective of those who know her, she continues to push herself to stay physically fit, and eats well whether she feels like it or not. She takes very little medication, and can often be seen walking with one of her caregivers in her neighborhood. People say she has a great attitude, and “goes with the flow.” She is very philosophical about things related to aging. She is open minded, nonjudgmental, adaptable, quite funny, and quick witted with just a great sense of humor. She gets along with everyone, and is thoughtful, kind, and considerate — a real “southern lady.”

There was a large family reunion here last year when everyone helped Kathaleta celebrate her 99th birthday. This year she will have two smaller celebrations, and if anyone would like to send along a birthday greeting, it can be sent to her at: Kathaleta Wheeless c/o Barry Wheeless — 141 W. Blue Lake Drive, Pagosa Springs CO 81147.

A very happy birthday to a delightful lady!