Julie McDonald Commentary: Area Centenarian Still Uses Skills to Help Others

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The last two weeks, I’ve shared stories about Shirley (French) Nelson, who celebrated her 100th birthday in July. What follows is the rest of her story.

After her divorce, Shirley traveled alone to Hawaii and, when she returned home, needed a newer car. Her brother-in-law consulted Jim Nelson at the Uhlmann Ford dealership, a widower with two daughters who visited her in the office to set a time to see a car. They started dating with dinner at Ivar’s seafood restaurant in Seattle and a 1956 movie, “Around the World in 80 Days.”

“We had a good time getting acquainted,” she recalled. “We’d go on picnics and road trips and such to get acquainted with the girls.”

Jim, a WWII Air Force veteran, was father to 12-year-old Lynn and 10-year-old Peggy. His wife, Betty Ann (Heder) Nelson, the daughter of Thor and Helen (Mundy) Heder, was only in her early 30s when she died of illness on Feb. 1, 1957. Shirley had always wanted children but couldn’t birth them herself.

“My life’s purpose seemed to lay before me,” Shirley wrote in her memoirs, “From Here to Eternity.” “I used to tell Mom that I had no reason to think I’d live long — no future to live for. God has a plan for each of us — if we give Him time.”

They married June 2, 1959, at her parents’ home on Eureka Avenue in Centralia. After a honeymoon in Reno, where they watched Gypsy Lee Rose perform, they picked up their girls and honeymooned as a family in Vancouver, B.C. Returning to Lewis County, they sold their respective homes, bought a new place at 2514 S.W. 19th St. in Chehalis, and settled into married life.

After their friend Bob Rose mentioned that his wife, Lorna, was selling Vivian Woodard Cosmetics, Shirley decided to do the same to earn money while remaining home for the girls. She trained in Los Angeles and launched her new career. She also started bowling and playing golf. They vacationed as a family during the summers.

When Lynn began taking driving lessons, she needed a parent to sign the paperwork, but Shirley hadn’t formally adopted her. That quickly changed as they underwent an interview to see if everyone agreed to the adoption. Shirley became their legal mother.

“One day, while shopping at a dime store, a friend of Peggy’s came up to her and asked, ‘Is this your stepmother?’ Peggy replied, ‘This is my second mother.’ My heart swelled with so many emotions and passions it nearly burst,” Shirley recalled.

They bought property west of Olympia on Eld Inlet and built an A-frame cabin where they created many family memories. They also bought the lot next to their Chehalis house and erected a new home with a garden room, shop, patio with brick barbecue and expanded yard. Jim planted rhododendrons, and they joined the Rhododendron Society. Shirley took a landscaping class from Lee Coumbs.

The girls enrolled in piano lessons, and both played in the band — Lynn on the clarinet and Peggy on the saxophone. Later, Lynn married John McCord, and Peggy married Bob Brooks. Grandchildren soon followed: Jeff, Meredith, Colin, Kelley, Karen and Kathleen. They also have six great-grandchildren.

Shirley, who excelled at art during grade school, took painting classes at the senior center. She met with other painters after the class and forged friendships. Jim restored a Model A coup and then a convertible Comet. Shirley also began writing poetry in the early 1970s.

Jim retired from Uhlmann Motors after 35 years. The couple danced often at Swede Hall and traveled extensively, both throughout the United States (including Hawaii) and overseas.

They had been married 43 years when Jim died of kidney cancer on Oct. 26, 2002.

Shirley continued to travel.

In 2017, she moved into Woodland Village, where she often sits in her chair and knits prayer bears to give to ailing children at Mary Bridge Hospital in Tacoma. The bears contain a pocket on the back with room for a biblical message of hope such as “God loves you.” She donates them through the Noah Jon Markstrom Foundation, a nonprofit formed in 2019 to honor 6-year-old Noah Jon Markstrom who died after battling brain cancer for two years. He was the great-grandson of Shirley’s friend Jean Bluhm, who helped celebrate her 100th birthday in July with her Westminster Presbyterian Church family.

“She made the first one for Noah two years ago when he was at Mary Bridge,” Bluhm said. “It was a hit there and she then made lots. Kyra and Kyle (Noah’s parents) took them up and gave them to lots of kids.”

They are also auctioned to raise money for the foundation.

“Shirley is beloved in our church and game for most everything,” Bluhm said. “She is quite an artist. She painted all the pictures in her house and gave us a lovely one.”

By early August, Shirley had finished knitting and stuffing 261 bears. She found instructions for the bears on “Guideposts.”

“My only thing is I don’t get to see the faces of the bears,” she said. Other volunteers add the button eyes, noses and mouths.

Shirley met Noah Markstrom a couple of times. “He was such a remarkable child for such a short life,” she said.

She always encouraged her grandchildren to give part of the money they received for Christmas to those who need it.

What has changed most in the past century? Electronics, she said. When she was a child, they listened to the news or “Amos and Andy” on the radio. They didn’t have a television.

“I often think the cell phones are devils,” she said. “It’s taking away the ideas or thoughts or imagination.”

She has an artificial knee but has enjoyed good health. “I praise God for that,” she said.

“Everybody has a blessing, whether they realize it or not,” she said. “There’s always somebody that is worse off than you are.”

The secret to her longevity? Working hard and staying positive.

“My mom lived to be 105 so that’s my goal,” she said.

Ida (Betts) French, who bowled until she was 95 and quit driving about then, died of congestive heart failure on June 20, 2008, less than a month after her 105th birthday. She attributed her longevity to hard work and moderation in everything.

Shirley’s driver’s license is good through 2024, and her car still runs.

“I await God’s call to come home.”

•••

Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.

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