Life expectancy was 48 years for men and 51 years for women, yet two babies born that year are celebrating their 111th birthdays in Kansas this year.
Consider all that Julia Kabance of Wamego and Gertrude Stern of Overland Park witnessed, from two world wars and the tenures of 20 presidents to momentous progress in human and civil rights and unbelievable innovations in technology, science and medicine.
These ladies don’t claim to have the secret to a long, healthy life but you can’t miss the lessons in how Kansas’ supercentenarians have lived.
Kabance was born Aug. 10 on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Reservation in northeast Kansas as the second youngest of 12 children. Her family farmed on the reservation and she attended the tribal grade school, public high school in Holton and then took classes at Haskell Institute (now Haskell Indian Nations University) as well as the University of Kansas.
During World War II, the then 32-year-old Kabance wanted to serve her country and chose to become one of nearly 150,000 women to join the Women’s Army Corps — they were the first non-nurse females to serve in the United States Army. She spent time at Fort Des Moines, Fort Leavenworth and McChord Field (now McChord Air Force Base) near Tacoma, Washington, performing clerical work to support the war effort.
According to the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation’s media relations office, Kabance achieved the rank of staff sergeant and served in the Army from 1943-1945, when she was honorably discharged after a case of measles left her with permanent hearing damage.
Kabance then returned to Kansas to care for her mother. After her mother died, she began a career in civil service, working for the Air Force in Topeka, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington state and spending time on the East Coast before retiring in 1972 while living again on the West Coast.
She returned to Kansas in 1979 and lived independently until 2019 in St. Marys, not far from where she grew up. A leg injury made it tough for her to get around on her own and she moved into a nursing care facility in Wamego.
“She’s still a firecracker,” said Michelle Simon, a spokesperson for Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. “She’s never let her age slow her down. She was driving until she was 105 or 106.”
Simon has spent time with Kabance, including several birthdays. Because of COVID-19, the last in-person celebration was in 2019 when members of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Tribal Council, elders, family and friends gathered to honor her. “I don’t feel like I’m 109, I feel like I’m 50,” she told visitors.
To celebrate her becoming a supercentenarian last August, dozens of motorcyclists from the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association drove a parade outside the nursing home, then stopped to sing Happy Birthday with tribal council members and members of the We-Ta-Se American Legion Post #410, where Kabance is a lifetime member and is the lone living veteran of WWII.
Kabance is the oldest member of the Prairie Band Potawatomie Nation and also is believed to be the oldest living female American veteran of WWII and the oldest Native American WWII veteran.
When she turned 108, she told Topeka television station WIBW the key to her longevity was green foods and beans. She’s also credited staying active, whether it was working in her yard or exercising. Simon has heard Kabance mention other lifestyle choices, too.
“One of the reasons she says she’s lived so long is that she never married and didn’t have the added stress of raising a family,” Simon said. “Something that was special to her throughout her life was serving others when she could, whether that was spending time with veterans or through her church.”
Kabance made time to volunteer in the Catholic church during her career and once she retired. She also spent decades assisting physical therapy patients at Colmery-O’Neil VA Medical Center in Topeka.
Stern rode in a convertible as grand marshal of the Overland Park Fall Festival parade for her 108th birthday and last year Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach proclaimed her birthday Gertrude Stern Day as 100 to 150 people gathered to celebrate her 110th birthday.
During his speech, the mayor announced Stern is the oldest living resident of Kansas, though there’s nobody to confirm this since the government doesn’t track such statistics, and she is the oldest member of The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah.
This month’s birthday will be more subdued as the risk of COVID-19 continues. While Stern doesn’t like having to be isolated as much as the past year has required, she takes that news with her signature positive attitude.
“I’ve never been one to let things bother me. I just take life as it comes and keep a good attitude about it,” she said in a phone interview in January.
She was born Gertrude Maizel on Feb. 27 in Sioux City, Iowa, to Russian immigrant parents who moved the family to the Kansas City area when she was 3 years old. She worked in a millinery shop before marrying Morris Stern in 1933.
They had three children — Neuman, Phil and Jaclyn — and were married 62 years when he died in 1995. The couple moved to Countryside, Kansas, in 1950 to what was then a sparsely populated area on the outskirts of Kansas City known for quality schools. It eventually grew into what is now known as the larger community of Mission; as an adult, Stern’s oldest son Neuman raised horses on his farm near Hillsdale about 30 miles south.
Stern stayed in that home for 67 years, until Neuman, who came by five days a week, died in 2017. She then moved into an Overland Park independent living apartment that Phil helps her manage from his home in Colorado with daily calls.
She drove until she was 105 and regularly attended group cardio exercise
class at the Heritage Center at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City until she was 107. She continues to walk at least three times a day, with assistance, going to the senior living facility’s main building for meals. She also participates in programs for stretching and upper body exercises, and Phil said she voted in the November 2020 election.
Stern attributes her long life to being active and faithfully taking vitamins for much of her life and keeping her mind busy through travel, hobbies and volunteerism.
In recent years, her hobbies have become more difficult. She doesn’t read as many Danielle Steele romance novels as she did a few years ago, and arthritis in her right hand has forced her to stop sewing and crocheting. She sewed clothing items for newborns in hospitals and seniors in nursing homes for decades.
Still, she considers herself lucky to have not dealt with much illness in her life. Son Phil, now 80 years old, believes his mother’s mindset has been more important to her longevity than anything physical.
“She has the most positive attitude about life,” he said. “Enduring an age like this can be something that could depress a person greatly because all of your contemporaries have died. Mom has been resilient, and I have to compliment her on that drive and attitude. She has aches and pains that come and go, but she’s able to deal with it and continues to have a positive outlook.”