She never imagined it

Gwen Chamberlain
Students of St Michael School celebrated Tuesday with Mrs Marie Keefer of St Mark's Terrace. Mrs Keefer turns 100 August 10th and is the oldest living alumna of St Michael School.

If you ask Marie Keefer of Penn Yan what’s so special about Aug. 10, 2014, she’ll probably say, “Not much.”

Sunday was her 100th birthday, and she doesn’t think it’s that special. But there are plenty of people who do think the milestone is an important one to mark.

As a 1927 graduate of St. Michael School, Marie is the oldest living alumna of the school. A group of students visited with her Aug. 5 to celebrate her centennial birthday. As they listened, she recalled the school days of her childhood.

“I enjoyed the children. They wanted to know what the school was like. There were two grades in one room then, so you were always learning more because of that,” she says.

She said she began attending the school as a 5-year-old, and graduated in 1927 as an eighth grader. The teachers at the time were Sisters of St. Joseph. “They were wonderful teachers. They taught us how to study and do things right.”

Recalling that the children wanted to know what the school buses were like, she laughs. “We walked every day, and there were no snow days. That was when we had winter,” she adds with emphasis on “winter.”

She stayed in touch with her classmates, and they would often reminisce about their days at St. Michael School.

She and her classmates went on to attend high school at Penn Yan Academy, and she graduated in 1931. She recalls that building with its “creaky oiled floor,” and separate entrances for boys and girls. “We never thought much about it then.”

After completing school in the midst of the Great Depression, she entered the workforce rather than attending college, and continued working in various office positions until her retirement.

“It was the Depression. You did anything you could do,” she explains.

One of her jobs was with the Penn Yan Municipal Utilities office, where she worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for $9 per week. Other jobs over the years included working for attorney James Townsend, the bus company in Penn Yan, and Empire Winery. After marrying Bill Keefer and moving to Dresden, she took a job at the DuPont plant (where Ferro is now located).

Bill had served in the U.S. Army during World War II, seeing action in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. Once he returned home, they bought his grandparent’s house in Dresden, where she lived for 40 years. “He never wanted to travel after the war. He said, ‘All I want is to be home and have a good dinner.’”

Marie never imagined she would be marking her 100th birthday, and she bristles at the thought of big celebrations or answering what she considers a question: “What is the secret to living a long life?”

“If I knew what I was doing would make me live longer, I wouldn’t do it,” she says with a chuckle.

Does 100 years old feel much different than 90? Not according to Marie. “I went from 40 to 50 and didn’t notice a difference. I never thought I’d get to be 90.”

After living through the Great Depression and World War II, she can reflect on things and be wistful about about some, but realistic about others.

“If you hadn’t lived during that time, you can’t know what it was like. You heard about millionaires jumping from skyscrapers, but the poor people just kept going and doing whatever they could do, and they became what Tom Brokaw calls ‘The Greatest Generation.’” They stayed and made the best of it and then ended up fighting the war. You didn’t have to feel bad about not having anything because everybody was in the same boat.”

Vision problems have left her with limited things to do with her time now, but she tries to get a half hour in on the exercise bike each day, and she walks as much as she can.