Thursday, November 16, 2006

Winner of 'oldest worker' title continues farm job in Kansas

Waldo McBurney lives in two worlds: one of buggies and hitching posts and the other of a growing trend of older Americans working longer.

Still spry and agile at 104, McBurney briskly walks most days from home to office in this High Plains farming community, where he raises bees and sells honey.

When McBurney was born on a nearby farm, flying was left to the birds and people communicated by writing letters. A three-mile trip to town in a wagon took a half hour, and working 10 hours a day, six days a week was the norm.

In October, Experience Works gave McBurney its “America’s Oldest Worker for 2006” award at a ceremony in Washington.

“He may not be the oldest worker, but he is up there and definitely outstanding,” said Cynthia Metzler, president of the national group, which provides training and employment for the senior citizens.

Work history

While it can’t be said definitively that McBurney actually is the oldest American working, the odds favor him.

Waldo McBurney, 104, takes a break from tending his bee hives Tuesday in Quinter. McBurney, a beekeeper, was honored recently as America’s oldest worker for 2006.

Waldo McBurney, 104, takes a break from tending his bee hives Tuesday in Quinter. McBurney, a beekeeper, was honored recently as America’s oldest worker for 2006.

“I can just go about anywhere and be the oldest. The ones my age don’t run around that much,” said McBurney, with wisps of white hair and weathered face and hands.

McBurney has worked since he can remember. At age 4 or 5, he gathered eggs from the hens in the old sod house where his parents had lived until shortly before he was born. His first paying job at age 13 was guiding a lead team of horses pulling a wheat thrasher. For that, he was paid 50 cents a day.

“After you finished with the chores, we would light the kerosene lamp and read,” he said.

He started gardening on the farm and even now raises fruits and vegetables in his backyard, bending down to pick tomatoes and put them in a pail.

The United States has an estimated 77,770 centenarians, about 0.026 percent of the population. The average American life span is 77.9 years.

‘Testing my humility’

After McBurney’s award, the town erected a sign near his office: “Congratulations, Waldo. America’s Oldest Worker.”

“I never considered myself a great character. They are testing my humility,” he said.

Those who know McBurney say he’s indeed a humble man who believes in helping his neighbor.

“He doesn’t think he’s more special than anyone else. I don’t know if I’ve heard a negative word out of his mouth,” said Laura Kesler, vice president of KansasLand Bank. “He always looks at the positive side, and that’s probably why he’s lived as long as he has.”

For McBurney, work is good.

“I’m not a strong believer in retirement. I don’t think retirement is in the Bible. Maybe it’s there, but I haven’t found it,” he said.

After graduating from college in 1927, he worked a quarter century variously as a vocational-agricultural teacher, county extension agent and at the local co-op. In the 1950s he started a seed-cleaning business. He also took a decades-long hobby of beekeeping and went into the honey business.

He operated the seed-cleaning venture until age 91 and still raises bees and sells honey, although much less than before.

“I’m trying to get out of the bee business because my back isn’t standing up like it should,” he said. “I hope somebody else will be handling the bees. I’ll keep a few at the house to raise our own honey.”

Low-key lifestyle

In 2004, McBurney published his book, “My First 100 Years: A Look Back from the Finish Line,” which he sells in his office.

“Selling books isn’t retiring,” he said. “I expect to be working.”

He enjoyed running all his life and at age 65 took up long-distance running. A decade later, he began competing in the Senior Olympics, the World Masters and other events, winning 10 gold medals for track and field events.

McBurney stopped competing a couple years ago, but almost every day he still walks the four blocks from his white framed house trimmed in blue to his Main Street office.

“My running got so slow I could walk as fast as I could run,” he said.

He wears glasses, but his eyesight is good enough that his driver’s license was renewed in September. Yes, he still drives, but not often.

McBurney lives a low-key lifestyle with his wife of 44 years, 92-year-old Vernice. They have five adult children from previous marriages.

“He’s pretty gentle, but he has a mind of his own,” she said.

He said with a chuckle: “When we got married, the deal was she would look after me in my old age and give me a decent burial. Well, she’s taken care of me but she hasn’t buried me yet.”

Keys to good health

McBurney attributes his longevity to many things: genes, exercise, food, attitude and faith. Many in his family lived into their 80s and 90s.

He believes in a healthy diet with lots of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, much of it grown in his garden.

McBurney says he never smoked or drank alcohol, which he believes helped him live longer.

“I always got along fairly well without them, so I still don’t know the taste of either of them,” he said.

Faith has been the center of McBurney’s life, and it’s why he doesn’t worry about death.

“The Bible says God will supply all your needs,” he said. “I feel like the next life is secure.”


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