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More than a milestone: Esther Hay marks 102nd birthday with her family

Esther Hay sits in her room at South Shore Care Center, where she spends a lot of time reading. (BETH RICKERS/DAILY GLOBE)1 / 2
Esther Hay was joined for her birthday celebration by her four children (from left): Jerry, from Worthington; Bill, from Grand Marais; Joan, now of Albuquerque, N.M.; and Leslie, Los Angeles, Calif. Her family also includes 11 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. (BETH RICKERS/DAILY GLOBE)2 / 2

WORTHINGTON — Esther Hay says she doesn’t feel 102 years old.

She doesn’t look it or act like it, either. The only noticeable evidence of her advanced age is a not-so-unusual decline in hearing ability.

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With the use of a walker, Esther gets around pretty well through the halls of the South Shore Care Center, where she now resides.

Each morning when she gets up, she makes her own bed and gets dressed by herself — taking great pains with her appearance, as she always has. When such necessities as eating and socializing are done, Esther likes nothing better than settling down in the big easy chair in her room with a big thick book — large print edition preferred, although she’ll tackle the finer print ones, too, if necessary.

Esther could easily pass for a decade or two younger, but last week she celebrated 102 years on this earth, her family by her side. With the help of her four children — Bill, Jerry, Joan and Leslie — Esther spent some time reminiscing about her long life on the occasion of her birthday.

Born Sept. 27, 1911, Esther grew up on a farm near Alpena, S.D., about 20 miles south of Huron.

“There were seven of us,” she said about the size of her family. “I was the third one. There were three girls and four boys.”

As was common on farms in those days, there were lots of livestock — cows, cattle, hogs, chickens. Esther helped to gather the eggs, but was exempt from the harder farm labor because she had an older brother to do such tasks. There were no tractors, combines or other such farm machinery. There were horses instead to pull the plow, wagon or buggy.

When Esther graduated from high school, she attended college for one year —Normal training in Aberdeen, S.D., which allowed her to teach in country school. She returned to the country school near her parents’ farm, now the teacher instead of the student. She rode a horse —one was named Maude, she recalled — to work every day and stabled it in a barn on the school grounds.

“She had to shovel the snow, start the coals for the stove, clean up the school,” inserted daughter-in-law Elaine. “She had to do everything. They didn’t have a janitor.”

Esther instructed eight to 10 students at the country school. Her salary was indicative of the bad times ahead as the Great Depression loomed on the horizon.

“The first year, I made $90 a month,” she detailed. “The second year, I made $60 a month. The third year, they cut it down to $40, and I quit.”

Although she liked teaching well enough, Esther thought there were better opportunities to be found, so she made a trip to Worthington to see her sister.

“My sister lived here, so I came down to see her, and I stayed and looked for a job, but jobs were hard to get,” Esther recalled.

She became a domestic helper — cleaning house and taking care of children for a local family.

Her sister’s husband ran a service station in Worthington, so she would stop there to visit. On one such occasion, she happened to be present when the business was held up by robbers, and she was interviewed by the police. Another time, there was a tornado warning, and she took refuge from the storm in the station’s grease pit.

Eventually, Esther met husband-to-be John Hay.

“He lived on the same block I was living on,” explained Esther. “We went to dances a lot.”

“I always teased her that she sent to the dance with friends and came home with dad,” said daughter Joan. “She said he was so handsome.”

“He was also a younger man,” added Leslie.

“He told her he was older than he was,” clarified Bill. “He said he was 27, when he found out how old she was, but he was really only 21.”

After about a six-month courtship, Esther and John were married and settled into an apartment near Worthington’s downtown. Eventually, they built a house on Omaha Avenue.

By the time World War II rolled around, the Hays had three children, and John was nervous about being drafted. He decided to move his family to California so he could work in a defense plant in the hopes that would save him from military service.

The ploy didn’t work for long — the draft notice arrived — but he was allowed to stay home until his fourth child, Leslie, was born.

“At first we lived with a family that were dad’s friends for about six months,” recalled Joan. “We had three kids, and they had three kids, and we all got scarlet fever. We were quarantined and only Dad and (his friend) Art could go to work.”

The family stayed in California for about five years. After his discharge from the service, John worked for a short time as a longshoreman in Long Beach.

“When the war was over, then my husband wanted to come back,” Esther explained, adding when prompted by her children, “He wanted to, I didn’t.”

Esther had made many friends in California, and she was reluctant to leave them behind, but John’s family was all still in Worthington.

Upon their return, John worked for the Chicago-Northwestern Railroad, but had other business enterprises, including a partnership in Young & Hay Bus Service. Later, he ran truck-washing businesses not only in Worthington, but also Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Schuyler, Neb.

Like most women of the era, Esther was a stay-at-home mom, except for a short stint filling in as a housekeeper at the medical clinic and the odd envelope-stuffing job.

“We lived close to both Central Elementary School and the junior high, and we and Dad all went home for lunch, every day,” marveled Joan. “So she probably started feeding kids at 11 a.m. and finished up a couple of hours later. … Consequently, she was always in a hurry, everything she did was in a hurry. I never ate cold pudding in my life.”

Eventually, the four Hay kids grew up and went their diverse ways.

When she was 75 years old, Esther became seriously ill. Aspiration pneumonia led to kidney failure, and she spent many weeks at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester.

“Her sisters came to bid her farewell, and she outlived all of them,” remarked Jerry.

John and Esther moved to the newly-built Homestead Cooperative in 1996. John died in 1997.

“We felt like he knew something was going to happen and wanted her in a good place,” reflected Elaine about the move.

Homestead was home to Esther throughout her 90s, but shortly after she turned 100 years old, she fell and broke her hip. Once again, she made a miraculous recovery, but the injury forced her move to South Shore Care Center.

Although her hearing difficulties have diminished her interest in other activities, Esther continues to be a voracious reader, devouring whatever reading material she can get her hands on, including the Minneapolis Sunday paper. In books, she prefers fiction, and a couple of bookshelves in her room are filled with titles by well-known authors.

“She tells us lately that she can pick up any book on the shelf and read it again because she doesn’t remember reading it the first time,” noted Bill.

With this birthday round of reminiscing concluded, Esther is anxious to get to her birthday festivities, a group party for all the residents with September birthdays.

“She’s not one to dwell on the past,” said Elaine.

“No, she always said, ‘That’s over,’” agreed Joan.

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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