It was a special May Day on May 1 this year: Lifelong Kenoshan May Schwaiger celebrated her 100th birthday, gathering with 60 family members and friends.
“I didn’t know that many people knew me,” she said with a laugh while discussing her first 100 years.
Schwaiger — who lived alone after her husband, Leo, died in 2002 — recently moved in with her daughter and son-in-law, Diane and Rob Bohnen, and that’s where we caught up with her.
Over the past century, Schwaiger has seen the world move from the Roaring ‘20s through the Great Depression and World War II and to the age of space exploration.
While she enjoys a rousing game of Dominoes, we thought it would be fun to play the old 20 Questions game with her:
What was your first car?
“Probably a Ford Model A,” Schwaiger said, explaining that she got her first car after she and Leo were married on Aug. 19, 1944.
When did you take your first plane ride?
“In the late ‘60s,” she said. She remembers in particular a “very turbulent flight. Oh, it was bad, so bad. The plane had to turn around and go back to the airport.”
Her most memorable flights were to Hawaii and to Europe, where she and her husband toured several countries for three weeks.
What’s the first movie you remember seeing?
“I don’t recall a particular movie,” she said, “but we used to go to the movies a lot. I remember the Orpheum Theater was Downtown.” She would go to the movies and also shop at the Downtown Kenosha stores — Barden’s, Lepp’s, J.C. Penney, a shoe store and a record store.
You were 20 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked — do you remember where you were? And what did you do during World War II?
“I don’t remember exactly where I was when Pearl Harbor was bombed,” she said, “but it was a very big thing when it happened. Years later, we visited Pearl Harbor, and you can walk out on a platform and see the ships still there in the water.”
During World War II, Schwaiger worked at Coopers — now Jockey — sewing parachutes for the armed forces. It was just one of several jobs she had, including working at Woolworth’s (“They told me I had a great smile,” she said) and other retail stores.
Being born in 1921, you grew up in the Roaring ‘20s and then the Great Depression. What memories stand out from that time?
“Having just one pair of shoes,” she said, laughing. “You didn’t get all the things like we have now.”
Luckily, she said, “My dad always worked. We didn’t have a lot of money, but he always had a job, even during the Depression. He worked for the Simmons Mattress Co. as a tool and die maker. Later, I worked there, too.”
When did you first get a TV set?
“Oh, I was pretty late in getting one,” she said. “Not too many people had a TV for a long time.”
What’s your favorite modern convenience?
“Refrigerator,” she answered very quickly. “Before that, we had to wait for the ice man to bring the ice, and we had to fill the ice box.”
What do you miss most about the Good Old Days?
“Everyone was friendly and would visit other houses,” she said. “People were neighborly and would help one another.”
What’s the secret to living 100 years?
“Clean living,” Schwaiger said. “I never smoked, and I hardly drank at all either.” (At this point in the conversation, her daughter, Diane Bohnen, holds up seven fingers and says, “This is probably the number of alcoholic drinks she’s had in her life.”)
What are your plans for the next 100 years?
After laughing a bit, Schwaiger said, “I’ll probably be under the ground. I think I’ve had plenty of years by now.”
What are your favorite hobbies?
“I used to do all sorts of crafts,” she said, showing off a tray she fashioned by weaving pine needles with a special tool. “I was even asked to teach crafts at Gateway Technical College,” she added.
She and her husband also danced as members of the Allemande Square Dancing Club and, for 25 years, they were “snowbirds,” spending winters in Florida.
Diane Bohnen said her mother “could sew without even using a pattern, while I had trouble sewing a straight line!”
Your favorite place to vacation?
“Hawaii and Europe,” she said.
Do you read a newspaper every day?
“My eyes aren’t so good, so I read the headlines,” she said.
What’s your favorite food? Least favorite?
“I love shrimp,” she said, and it was on the menu at her 100th birthday party. However, she does not like salmon.
Where’s your favorite place to go out to eat?
“We go to Ruffolo’s II” on Kenosha’s northside at 3931 45th St., and she loves the sirloin steak and loaded baked potato at Texas Roadhouse.
What do you like to watch on TV?
The Game Show Network.
What’s your advice to young people today for living a happy life?
“Be kind, have friends and enjoy your family,” she said.
Her son-in-law, Rob Bohnen, added that May “has always stayed away from gossip. She says to not listen to it.”
What’s the biggest change in the world from 1921 to 2021?
“Cars and airplanes are big ones,” she said. “And rockets and space travel.”
What are your hopes for the world as we emerge from the COVID pandemic?
“That we have no more wars,” she said.
Did you know anyone who lived to be 100?
“I never did,” she said, adding with a laugh, “But I know one now.”
Have you ever used a computer?
“Just to play Solitaire.”
At age 100, what’s something you still want to do?
“I’d still like to take a trip,” she said, her eyes lighting up. “I’d love to go back to Hawaii, but I’ll go any place somebody takes me.”
Thanks, May, for playing along with our 20 Questions Game. And for those keeping score at home who may have noticed we went over 20 ... well, at age 100, who’s counting?