Willetta Sander

Willetta Sander smiles at a slide shown on a television screen at her 107th birthday party at Eventide in Denison on Tuesday, August 13 last year. Her daughter, Susan Siefken, shares a comment. One of the slides was Willetta riding a bicycle for the first time ever during the previous year. Photo by Gordon Wolf

When Willetta Sander was born in 1912, William Howard Taft was in his fourth year as president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt had just been nominated as the presidential candidate for the Bull Moose Party and just 11 days later the District of Alaska became an organized incorporated territory of the United States.

Willetta celebrated her 107th birthday on Tuesday, August 13 last year at Eventide in Denison where Robin Schiltz, Eventide activities director, announced that Willetta was the oldest recorded person in Crawford County.

At the party, Willetta displayed her sharp mind, quick wit and easy smile, qualities that likely stemmed from advice she had shared with her daughters.

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

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.

At a dance at the Three Mile House near Manning, Willetta (then Kruse) met Bill Sander. They were married on Wednesday, August 8, 1934. The temperature that day was 113 degrees.

They 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.

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

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 at age 79.

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.”

However, Willetta was always a good cook, Marlys said during an interview with the Denison Bulletin and Review for an article published on August 16 last year. 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.

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,” she said. “We thought he was a ripe old age.”

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

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