Many people have a hard time remembering what they had for breakfast that morning, but for 102-year-old Clara Leno, the past is anything but opaque.
“I had no expectations that I would ever reach this age,” Clara said matter-of-factly, “but I’m here and I have my full memory back to age 2.”
These memories begin over a century ago as a child living on her family homestead outside of Mayville, North Dakota. She remembers sitting in the rocking chair on the porch of the family’s Sears & Roebuck home that had arrived fully built.
“We just ordered a home,” she said with a faraway smile as if drifting back to that magical time of carefree summer afternoons when the open prairie yawned wide before her under a horizon of blue skies and sunshine.
Back then, she was pretty spunky, she admits. Growing up with German parents, Clara remembers being 5, and telling her parents she no longer wanted to speak German in their home. They were Americans now, she’d told them, and as such felt they should be speaking English. After winning the battle at home, Clara was chagrined when a large entourage of German-speaking Russians infiltrated their mixed community of immigrant homesteaders.
With so many German-speaking families now in the region, German once again became the dominant language as churches and local businesses followed suit. Clara had no choice but to learn to speak it and took the mission with her trademark self-determination and drive.
“I delivered the entire Catechism in German without making one mistake,” she said proudly. “I memorized every single word. I had no choice.”
That she would eventually grow up to be a German language teacher, both in high school and later college, is an irony not lost on her, as she smiles at the circuitous nature of events.
Among the more memorable moments of her life was her decision at age 16 to leave the family homestead and go to high school in the city. Back then, the Great Depression was in full swing, and as Clara watched her parents struggle to put food on the table for their 11 children, Clara understood if she was ever to make a better life for herself, she would have to do it on her own.
“Growing up, you had to fend for yourself,” she said.
Today, looking back, she believes it was God who spoke to her and urged her to leave the family home to expand her horizons and better her life.
Leaving her family, Clara took a live-in maid job with a family in the city and cooked and cleaned before and after school, sleeping on a cot in a nook off the kitchen. With high school diploma eventually in hand, she kept working odd jobs cleaning or clerking in local stores to put herself through college, ultimately becoming a German teacher.
“I didn’t want anything to stand in my way, so I just went forward,” Clara said, raising a clenched fist. “I did what I had to do to make my education possible. I did it all on my own.”
She still loves German grammar, she added with a shy smile, as she leaned forward to greet a group of ladies from her Bible study class at Elmcroft of Sugarland Ridge, where she’s lived for nearly a month.
The Bible group is one of her social outlets along with evening dinners with others in the public dining room.
Her son Darrel and his family moved to Sheridan decades ago, where his son Mike and family now also live, and Clara followed them 20 years ago, moving into her own home and now into Sugarland. Other than occasionally wearing hearing aids, Clara is in perfect health, she noted with pride. Not only does she make her own breakfast, but she also walks a couple miles outside every day and says she feels great.
“I don’t sit still
for anything,” she said.
“I just go.”
Dark-haired, able-bodied and petite, Clara bustled around the dining room like a woman half her age with the same drive and determination that’s defined her life.
Darrel said she’s always been like this: very serious and determined about everything, including her 48-year marriage to her husband G.C. or “Doc,” named so because of his doctorate in education, who Clara describes as the love of her life.
Doc, like Clara, taught at Mayville College, where the two first met.
Many of her best memories revolve around her husband, who died of cancer when he was in his early 70s.
“We didn’t get enough years together,” she said, frowning. “He died far too young.”
She remembers meeting him as a young teacher, when the two talked in between classes as students passed through the halls. Somehow, though she doesn’t remember the particulars, the two became an item. They were 24 and 26, respectively, when they wed.
“I had no aspirations to marry, but he was always very friendly,” she said.
Apart from her serious side, Clara also has a light side and loves to entertain. She recalls all the parties she and her husband had with fellow faculty during their college teaching days.
One Christmas, she decided to throw a last-minute party, throwing together an impromptu dinner for “50 or so of their closest friends.”
“I jumped behind the piano and we all sang,” she said with a nostalgic grin.
The other constant in her life is her devout faith and belief in God, which continues to guide her life today.
This is her advice for young people: know the Lord.
“It’s very important for everyone to learn who their savior is because one day you are going to say yes or no,” she said. She knows what her answer will be.
In the meantime, she’s more than content with her new life at Sugarland Ridge in Sheridan and is eager to meet more residents. Life has taught her many lessons, she said, and she continues to grow.
“You learn in stages,” she said, “and you thank God for everything.”
By: Jen C. Kocher