Willetta Sander

Willetta Sander smiles at a slide shown on a television screen at her 107th birthday party at Eventide in Denison on Tuesday. Her daughter, Susan Siefken, shares a comment. One of the slides was Willetta riding a bicycle for the first time ever last year. Photo by Gordon Wolf

When Willetta Sander was born, William Howard Taft was in his fourth year as president of the United States and Woodrow Wilson had been elected, transcontinental flights were relatively new and the National Biscuit Company (later named Nabisco) developed the Oreo cookie.

Since that time, she has seen 17 more presidents elected to office, man is contemplating flights to Mars and the Oreo cookie is still going strong with a multitude of varieties.

Willetta celebrated her 107th birthday on Tuesday, August 13, with a party at Eventide in Denison. Robin Schiltz, Eventide activities director, announced that Willetta is the oldest recorded person in Crawford County.

At 107 years old, Willetta displays a sharp mind and quick wit and has an easy smile, qualities that may stem from advice she has shared with her daughters.

“She always said to have a positive attitude,” said a daughter, Marlys Groth.

Willetta was born into an era of manual labor and few conveniences, although in the days before rural electrification, what people think of as conveniences today would have been useless then.

Willetta was the oldest of three girls born to Harry and Laura Kruse. The girls and their parents worked hard on the farm near Manning. Willetta said she milked the cows, fed the hogs and did other farm chores and housework. She learned to drive a team of horses to do field work.

School was at Hayes Township No. 7 where Willetta must have been a faithful student. A report in the May 1, 1918, Denison Bulletin listed her among the students who were neither absent nor tardy for the month ending April 19.

Willetta recalled that as a youth, her family didn’t get to town very often, except on a Sunday, and the occasional festive events.

An account in the Denison Review of January 12, 1933, said that Willetta and her sister, Florence, and two friends, Gertie Schroeder and Elsie Rowedder, also of Manning, won the prize for the best group of four at a masquerade ball at the Columbia Hall. Willetta would have been 20 at the time.

“We had tissue paper and were kewpie dolls,” said Willetta, recalling the outfits they wore for the masquerade.

At other times, as farm life allowed, her parents enjoyed going to dances, and Willetta did, too.

It was at one of these dances, at the Three Mile House near Manning, that Willetta Kruse met Bill Sander. They were married on Wednesday, August 8, 1934.

What was it about Bill that made Willetta believe they were destined to be together?

“You just know,” said Willetta. “He was a good dancer and I was a good dancer. We danced a lot.”

The wedding article in the August 16, 1934, Denison Bulletin said that Willetta wore a gown of white satin with white lace trimmings and a floor-length veil. Her sister, Florence, was the bridesmaid. Bill was attended by his brother, Max. The relatives and friends later gathered at the Five Mile House south of Westside to dance to the music of the Harmony Boys.

What the newspaper account doesn’t mention is that it was 113 degrees that day.

Willetta and Bill farmed near Manning on the farm where Willetta grew up.

Although they had a tractor, they also had a team of horses that was used to plant corn.

Willetta said she preferred to use the horses to driving the tractor.

They faced tough times, among them the Great Depression.

While the effects of the depression were felt, Willetta pointed out, “Everybody was in the same position.”

She and Bill had four daughters – Corrinne, Marlys, Judi and Susan.

The Sander household was often filled with music. Bill played accordion and violin, and occasionally he would play at the Five Mile House, which was just three miles north of their home.

They would go polka dancing there, too, and would take the kids. The children would sleep in a different room while the parents made their turns around the dance floor.

In 1952 the Sanders left the farm and moved to Schleswig. They owned and operated a little bar and grill, and during the days Bill worked as a welder at Gomaco in Ida Grove.

In the early 1960s they moved to Denison and later became custodians at Midwestern College, located where Denison Job Corps is today. Tragedy struck one day when Bill suffered a heart attack and died at age 61.

Willetta became a cook at the Denison Elementary School on 20th Street. She enjoyed cooking for the children. She retired nearly 28 years ago, at age 79.

At the party at Eventide on Tuesday, a niece, Marvelyn Lillison, remembered that going to the Sanders was a treat that they didn’t often get to enjoy because they lived in Okoboji. They liked seeing their cousins.

Marlys Groth commented, “Mom was always there to do whatever we needed. She made our cheerleader outfits and bridal Veils. She was always there for us and she still is.”

Another daughter, Judi Brookbank, remembered “baking with my Mom and some of the mistakes that we made and how much fun we had with those mistakes.”

“Big dumplings,” Willetta later recalled was the failed cooking adventure.

However, Willetta has always been a good cook, Marlys said during the interview with the Denison Bulletin and Review. Her fried chicken was a family favorite.

Susan Siefken’s memory at the Eventide party was camping trips with her mother.

“When we were raising our kids, Mom went on vacations with us. We went camping and she was always a good sport, always ready to go and always eager and had much fun. We had a lot of laughs together,” she said.

When Marlys asked her mother how she could remember all that she does, Willetta pointed to her head and said, “It just registered right up there.”

She may, at times, need a little prompting to remember how many great- and great-great-grandchildren she has. In addition to 14 grandchildren, she has 31 great-grandchildren and 29 great-great-grandchildren.

Willetta couldn’t come up with any reason for her longevity, other than it may run in the family.

“I had a great-grandfather who lived until he was 91,” said Willetta, “We thought he was a ripe old age.”

She had simple and direct advice for those younger who are looking for a secret to a happy life: “You do your best.”

At Eventide, Willetta enjoys watching television, doing puzzles, getting visitors and recalling her favorite memories about growing up in rural Iowa.

Looking back on it all, Willetta said, “Life is good.”

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