John Eby: Ray Wilder turned 100 on Tuesday, Oct. 11

Published 11:42 am Friday, October 14, 2011

When I was a cub reporter 30 years ago, the state representative I covered in Three Rivers, Mark Siljander, followed Dave Stockman into Congress, then was eventually unseated a few years later by a fellow named Fred Upton.
In the 1980s, Ray Wilder was synonymous with the Republicans’ annual Lincoln Day dinners, held in recent years in Edwardsburg, but in those days a Dowagiac fixture usually at the Elks (Sixth Generation Oct. 8!)
I vaguely remember Ray had been a pharmacist, but mostly I associate him with the GOP for all those banquets with folks like Mick (and later Mary Ann) Middaugh, Carl Gnodtke, Glenn Oxender and Harmon Cropsey.
So I was astounded to learn this week that Ray was turning 100 last Tuesday.
In fact, he wrote a pretty detailed account of his long life which I have been reading.
Ray was born on N. Front Street in Dowagiac on Oct. 11, 1911, then moved to a farm on Middle Crossing Road in 1916, shortly before he started school.
With few playmates, there was a lot of enjoyable tramping through woods and fields.
Wilder recalls his dad making a trip to Albion, coming home after several days with a team and wagon.
He spent some of one summer in Albion with his grandparents and rode on the trucks from the lumberyard.
With grandpa Wilder’s help, new cupboards were installed in the farmhouse.
One spring, Ray’s dad fell from a horse, broke his collarbone and was laid up for some time.
He wouldn’t keep all the tape on that was necessary then, so the farm work suffered that year.
Ray’s mom was not well and made many trips to Drs. Green and Meyers in Dowagiac.
His Aunt Vena and Uncle Will Burt lived in Dowagiac and they made many trips back and forth.
Wilder enjoyed spending time with cousin Margaret Burt (Denny).
World War I “was a hectic time,” Ray writes. “I remember seeing the first aeroplane high in the sky. A young neighbor, Russom, joined the Navy and we saw him home on leave. A train trip to Albion showed a lot of soldiers at the station in Battle Creek (Camp Custer); in Niles there were soldiers patrolling the railroad bridge over the St. Joe River. Sugar and some other foods were rationed, gasoline was NOT a problem. Several of the other farmers worked in town and daily walked by the farm early and late. Wheat was $2 a bushel, but Dad planted rye. The farm was a lonely time for me, as other kids were occupied with their own duties. Gypsies visited the area in summertime and were a great curiosity where they camped.”
About 1919, Wilder’s father sold the farm and went to work at the “new” Premier Furnace Co., in which he also invested some money.
Ray spent some time at the factory site when it was being built and later, during production. No restrictions on kids being around then.
“Soon, Dad got fed up with factory work and bought a drug store in Colon.”
I covered the magic capital in St. Joseph County for the Three Rivers Commercial in 1979-1980 and have even been to such remote outposts as Mendon and Leonidas, so I can relate when he writes, “The move was a very difficult adjustment for me, going to a very small town. The school was all in one building. High school upstairs, grades down. I started playing a horn there, beginning on a baritone, which Dad bought for $10. Soon changed to a cornet and took a few lessons. We played summer concerts on the street and the parades for all the ‘little’ towns around.”
It goes on like this for 15 pages, with an update he added in 1991 and a military sidebar.
What a treasure trove.
It reads like an oral history by Dowagiac visitor Studs Terkel and we’ll share some more of it.
Another elderly gentleman — OK, curmudgeon — who caught me by surprise was Andy Rooney, who is done delivering his “60 Minutes” commentaries, which he started in 1978, the year I graduated from college.
He’s 92! I had no idea.
Imagine starting a job at that level when your bushy brows are almost 60.
As someone who collects quotes, I love Rooney’s observation, “It’s just amazing how long this country has been going to hell without ever having got there.”