Willis is 90

On my drive home from work yesterday, I passed a colorful red, white and blue sign (complete with flags and windcatchers). I thought it might be a garage sale, so I turned the car around and headed back toward the house. The sign wasn’t for a garage sale, but for an announcement and invitation:

Stop here for a chat
with “Willis” 90 yr b-day.
Thur-Fri-Sat-Sun 10am – ?

I turned around on the road once more and slowed as I passed. I don’t know these people and don’t know if the sign was meant for friends and family or for the general public. Still, that sign beckoned. He is 90 years old, after all, and maybe he likes meeting new people. The worst that could happen is I’d receive blank stares from Willis and his family and feel unwelcome. The best thing that could happen is I would meet an interesting person who’s seen a heck of a lot happen over the last 90 years.

I pulled in the driveway.

Making my way to the front door, I found it blocked by about a dozen beautiful containers of colorful annuals. Must need to head toward the side of the house. I’d noticed the garage door was open. Just before I got to the garage door, I noticed a small porch leading up to a plain white door with a deadbolt in it. I ascended and knocked.

“You probably want in over here – that’s where I came in”, said a voice.

The gentleman leaving pointed toward the garage door and to a door leading from garage into the house. A woman was standing in the doorway.

The next moment could have been exceptionally uncomfortable. To my surprise and delight, it wasn’t. I introduced myself and said I was driving home from work when I saw the sign and decided to stop by since someone was celebrating his 90th birthday. The woman, who I later learned was Willis’ wife Ellen, smiled and invited me in.

Willis Fravel sat at the kitchen table, his walker in front of him. I approached him, said hello and shook his hand. “How old are you?”, he asked. When I replied that I was forty this year, he said, “well, you’re legitimate then.”

For the next hour, I sat in the cool kitchen and talked with Willis, Ellen, Willis’ almost 96-year-old brother, and his brother’s wife. I learned that Willis was born in this same house and had lived there all his life. His parents bought it in 1911 when his mother was pregnant with his older brother. He told me where his wife’s family farm used to be and where his siblings’ farms were.

On the subject of disappearing farmland, Ellen and I talked about billionaire Les Wexner’s gobbling up family farms all around the New Albany area. He used some underhanded ways of gaining property and made a lot of enemies. Now, people focus on his wealth, brand names, and philanthropy. But during the 1980’s it was a different story.

Back in the late 1980’s, I volunteered at WCVO radio. It was a lot different back then, more of a mom and pop business under Pat Patterson. I volunteered during the late-night hours of Final Flight, a Christian rock show, answering counseling calls and doing odd jobs. I did voicework for PSA’s there, too.

“Are you a rocker?”, Willis interjected. I told him I’m more likely to listen to jazz now.

Anyway, during that time, Wexner was building his mega mansion and buying out property all around the radio station. He really wanted WCVO and its prime real estate. They wouldn’t sell to him. Wexner bullied them, making a big brouhaha about the lighted cross up at the top of their signal tower, saying it was offensive to him as a Jew. I’d lost touch with people at the station after I discontinued my volunteer work there, so Ellen filled me in on how they took care of that particular issue.

“They just took out one light bulb!”, she laughed, “And that turned the cross into a plus sign!” We had a good laugh over that one. Take that, Wexner!

victory-garden.jpgBack to Willis now. I told him I enjoyed gardening and he asked if I have a Victory Garden, like during the war. I told him about how our veggie garden is in the front yard of our little suburban plot. I asked what kind of tomatoes he likes, if he’d grown any heirloom. He stuck to pretty basic stuff. He said the fancy tomatoes didn’t gain popularity until after he quit maintaining a garden in the late 1970’s, when his father (then in HIS 90’s) decided to quit gardening.

Willis is a retired teacher of agriculture. That might sound odd to some people, but in rural areas, some schools offer classes about farming. I don’t know if they all did or still do, but they did when he was teaching. He said they were affiliated with the FFA, too – Future Farmers of America. I don’t recall all the places he taught, but I remember him talking about Junction City, Northridge and Utica. He was also very involved with the Hartford Fair in Croton. Think of that…He’s seen hundereds of 4H kids through the years.

I told them about my grandparents both being English teachers and how I grew up loving to read and to learn. Knowing he’d been a farmer and educated people about agriculture, I told him I’d been involved with the Master Gardener program in our county, and enjoyed helping on the information hotline. I said I am one to grab my camera when I come across an interesting insect while I’m out gardening, just so I can get a picture and identify it later. “I just like to learn”, I said. He replied that he was lucky because 90% of his students were like me and wanted to learn. The other kids, well, he kind of shrugged. I wonder if it’s still 90-10 when it comes to students today.

When I told them I work at the coffee shop, Ellen said she likes coffee, but sticks to decaf. We talked about the blessing of having a job you enjoy and for which you’re well-suited. Ellen worked for Victoria’s Secret (owned by Wexner, incidentally) in their warehouse, hard work with lots of hours. We laughed about people actually buying diamond-studded bras!

After enjoying a glass of lemonade and a truly enjoyable hour’s visit, I headed home. Before I left, though, I asked if I could take their picture.

There are so many questions I wish I’d asked this family. What was school like when he was a student? Ellen said he loves to read, but I neglected to ask him what authors and subjects he likes. One thing we did talk about was how we both enjoyed Harold “Pop” Baughman’s radio show on WCVO; Harold talked about old times, read poetry, and took calls from listeners. Anyone else remember Pop?

Update: I just remembered that Willis told me he and his schoolmates got to hear John Philip Sousa’s band play. I think he said they were recording for radio, and sometimes the kids got to sit on chairs and listen, but other times they had to sit on the floor if there wasn’t room. Willis mentioned that when he asked me if I was a rocker. 😉

The whole drive home, I felt so happy and thankful. I ruminated about how good life can be when you step out and befriend others. I am thankful my curiosity got the best of me, thankful to have met these good people and to hear their stories. I stopped by to bring joy to an old man on his birthday, but I think I walked away with the better part of the blessing. Isn’t that how it goes?

If you’d like to send birthday wishes to Willis, leave a comment. I told them I’d send them the picture I took, and I am going to print this entry and the comments to enclose with it.

11 thoughts on “Willis is 90

  1. Happy 90th Birthday Willis !!!

    Nice to meet you and Ellen. Kimberley is a dear friend and I’m so happy you decided to share your afternoon with her.

    Hope you have nothing but happy days in the future.

  2. Happy Birthday Willis! Wish I could deliver my message in person–you sound like a man who has led an interesting life.

  3. Happy Birthday, Willis! Hope you had a wonderful day with lots of visitors Have you ever heard of bale gardening? I don’t know if you still garden but bale gardening or strawbale gardening seems to be an easier way of gardening for elderly or physically challenged folk. I’m trying it this year, my bales are ready to plant so will get my maters, peppers, zukes, cukes, and yellow spuash planted. The corn and beans are growing in the ground garden though we’ve had to do a LOT of watering due to lack of rain.

    Would love to sit down and chat with you. I miss my grandfather terribly, he passed in 98 just a few months shy of 90 yrs old. I remember many of his stories but wish I could hear them again. Let Kimberly know if you’d like to learn more about bale gardening and I’ll get the information to you.


  4. Happy Birthday Willis! I enjoyed reading about your visit with Kimberley. It reminded me of my grandfather (Opa) who was a great gardener and daffodil bulb grower in the Netherlands. He switched to tulips when he emmigrated.

    I hope you had a wonderful day with family and friends, old and new. 🙂

  5. Dear Willis,
    Feliz Cumplea Os, amigo! I am a Spanish teacher at Licking Valley High School- and I am happy to report that VoAg and FFA are alive and well in the Valley! Those programs thrive and have a proud heritage…and it is people like you who helped “plant those seeds”. Bless your heart for touching all of the lives that you touched in your classroom years! They say that working with the kids helps keep us young. This is my 33rd year coming up this year, so I must be REALLY young by now! And think what that makes you! Hope this birthday celebration is just a kickoff for another great year!

  6. Hi Willis and a very happy birthday to you!! I also am a gardener. I think it was wonderful that Kimberly stopped to talk to you, and wish I could have too. I hope it was a grand day for you!!

  7. Happy Birthday Willis from a former 4-H’er from Lake County, Indiana! I’m so glad to have had people like you in my life and would bet there are many who give you such credit! Hope your day was great. What a great way to spend a birthday.

  8. Happy birthday to you Willis. I have a few nonagenarians and you are the latest in the list. I wish you a happy and healthy future. Kimberley gave me the link here.

  9. Hi Willis,
    Happy Birthday greetings for you from a former 4H, FFA member, and county fair swine superintendent as well as present day small farm/ranch owner (we raise sheep,mosquitoes and pond plants for sale. Not much of a market for the mosquitoes though). My husband was a Farmers Union member during his school days and his grandfather and grandmother helped to bring Farmers Union to Montana where they had homesteaded. His grandmother actually started teaching Montana history at the age of 84 and taught till she was 95.

    My Mom was born in 1913 and Dad in 1911 both on family homesteads and I have heard many great stories of their lives on the farm. My Grandfather was boss farmer for the Sioux tribe in South Dakota before the turn of the 20th century and taught them how to farm. I know the dedication that takes to be a teacher. Thank you for your years of helping our young people learn to be better citizens of the world and better farmers too.

    Kimberley’s story of her visit with you reminded me of the many times I have done something on the spur of the moment and found a new friend. I am glad that you had a chance to meet each other. Hope you had a wonderful birthday and many more to come.

  10. Happy Birthday Willis from Winchester, Kentucky! You are a very interesting man and I am glad Kimberley was able to meet you 🙂

  11. Happy Birthday Willis, from the redwoods of California. From Kimberly’s account it sounds as if you had a wonderful day visiting with folks. May God bless you and keep you throughout the days and years to come.

    Fortuna, California

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