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A century of loving life, loving art: Dillon has plenty of parties planned

Art covers the walls of Leota Dillon's home where she enjoys painting because it gives her a purpose and she can share her art with family. She is looking forward to celebrating her 100th birthday April 3 at Rosemount Senior Living. Kara Hildreth / Forum News Service

ROSEMOUNT, Minn. — Leota Dillon holds a strong zest for living and life and each day looks forward to adding a few brushstrokes on her paintings.

"I actually love life and I have no reason not to love life," she said.

She celebrates her 100th birthday on Tuesday, April 3.

As a resident of Rosemount Senior Living, she will celebrate becoming centenarian April 4 with residents and staff. Then she will welcome family to town for a private party April 14. Dillon said she feels fortunate to have 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren after raising three sons.

The South Dakota native has lived in Rosemount for two years and in Minnesota since 2006. Today she lives quite independently, cooking most meals and taking care of herself. Her husband, Rodney, died a few years ago after they celebrated their 76th anniversary.

Born on a farm in western South Dakota, Dillon moved to the Black Hills when she was 16 and graduated from eighth grade, since she did not have the opportunity to attend high school.

Her family moved there to mine for gold, but that did not pan out — no pun intended, she said, jokingly. Her father worked on Mount Rushmore as a winchman and navigated equipment to move men up and over to drill the presidents' faces on the rocky mountainside.

A photograph of Mount Rushmore hangs on her apartment wall. She recalls how her mother took care for the grandchildren of artist Gutzon Borglum, who created Mount Rushmore. Her brother worked for him as a chauffeur.

"I have been up Mount Rushmore and the 310 steps up the mountain — that was not too bad, but the coming down was," Dillon said.

After she finished school, she landed a job at a motel where she worked 10-hour shifts to earn a dollar a day. That is where she fondly recalls how she met her husband, who was a souvenir salesman.

The gentleman encouraged his dog to greet her when she was reading a newspaper. That is where their story began and they were married two years later. She recalls how her husband worked on building a state highway and drove truck, earning 35 cents an hour. Drafted into World War II, he worked as a rifleman in the U.S. Army. They were separated for three years, during which time she raised their two sons alone.

"I lived on $30 a month and we had coffee rationed, gas and sugar and it was kind of a rough life, and then he came home and we had another son," Dillon said.

Their sons are Jerry, Bill and Linwood, who lives Hastings. He comes to care for his mother along with his wife, Maureen.

"When we brought her up here, she had been to the doctor only five times in her life, and three times were to have kids and maybe that is part of the reason she is 100," Linwood said.

Proud to have lived a healthy life, Dillon credits her longevity to good genes; her mother lived to be 95 years old and her paternal aunt lived to be 102.

Most of her life, Dillon worked as a homemaker and her husband worked as a cabinet maker. They lived for 20 years in Rapid Valley, S.D., where they built a home and rental properties for the U.S. Air Force.

Dillon now spends her time painting. Four pieces of original artwork currently hang in her living room. Her hands are steady and her eyesight remains keen enough to complete paint-by-numbers artwork.

She is proud to say she has painted and given away more than 100 artworks to family in the last 12 years.

"I give them all to my grandkids and anybody else who will take one," Dillon said.

To keep her mind active, Dillon reads quite a few romance, Amish and historical fiction novels on her e-reader.

"When I get to be 100, what am I going to do? I guess I always say it is in the hands of the Lord. If he wants me to live to be a 110, I will live that long."

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