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Similar lives of two at 102

Morris women share same name, age, community, and more

By Katie Erdman

Gladys Helberg and Gladys Henricks have more in common than just their names. They both have father’s named Frank. They grew up very close to each other in Stevens County. They both live near each other now. And they both be 102 years old this year. 

Gladys Henricks (left) and Gladys Helberg (right), pictured at Glady Helbergs apartment at Skyview Court in Morris, just a couple miles from Gladys Hendricks home. Both are 102 years old this year. They reflected on the similarities of their lives. The both had dad’s name Frank, both grew up in the same area of Stevens County, and they are both now 102 years old. Photo by Katie Erdman

The two did not attend school together but as teenagers knew and often hung out with some of the same people. However, they really got to know each other when Henricks’ sister married Hellberg’s brother. They would then see each other at family gatherings and also when Henrick’s sister passed away at the age of 37 from cancer.

Gladys Helberg, who was called “Dolly” as she was growing up, was born in 1922 to Frank and Sophie Smith. She was one of 10 children raised on a farm in Rendsville Township of Stevens County. The family lived in Donnelly for a few years and her father worked at the hardware store. Gladys’ mother played the organ at the local church. Eventually her parents purchased a farm where they also raised animals.

She attended country school at District 33 through the 8th grade. She was not able to attend high school since they did not have anywhere for her to stay in town. Instead, she helped as much as she could on the farm, sometimes milking cows, feeding animals and putting up hay.

Gladys Henricks grew up in Swan Lake Township of Stevens County on the shores of Pomme de Terre Lake. Her parents were Frank and Vera Zahl. Rendsville Township is located across the lake from Swan Lake Township, so she attended country school at District 40. Once a year the country schools would get together for a county wide field day, so the girls were vaguely aware of each other from those events.

Her siblings included six girls and one boy. They also farmed the land in Swan Lake Township. The two girls did not even meet at the wedding of their siblings but knew each other from hanging out with mutual friends.

Roller skating was one of the favorite activities for both girls as well as going to dances. The Perkins (also known as Pomme de Terre) Lake roller rink was a popular place for teenagers. The rink charged 25 cents for hours of entertainment.

“When we wanted to go to the roller rink, we would sometimes row our boat across the lake,” Henricks explained. This was a popular spot for ball games and picnics too.

Helberg met her husband Roy on a Saturday night in Morris. Many of their friends would park their cars in town and then walk up and down the street visiting. They were married on March 5, 1941, and had three children, two girls and one boy. Their son died at the age of 56 of a heart attack. Gladys says she has 16 grandchildren and numerous great grandchildren.

Henricks was able to go to high school in town and afterward went to the Twin Cities area where she worked. She returned to Morris in 1952 and worked for 41 years at the West Central School of Agriculture and Experiment Station in Morris. She met her husband Jim through mutual friends at the Lakeside Pavilion where there was Big Band music on the weekends.

“He was not a good dancer,” she shared, “but I taught him enough, so it worked.” However, they did not dance as much after getting married.

Henricks had one son, John, who was tragically killed in a shooting spree in Nova Scotia. The event made national news as the killer also burned the homes of the people he shot. Her son had four children, so she now has 13 great grandchildren and four great great grandchildren. At the time of his death, John was retired after spending 10 years in the Navy.

Helberg was also familiar with tragedy. She had two brothers who served in the Navy and one of them was stationed at Pearl Harbor during the bombings. He was on shore at the time and escaped death but was put to the task of claiming bodies from the bombed-out ships. After that the Navy sent him to Argentina for one year to recover. Today this would be called Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome but then it was just part of going to war.

Polio was another common ground for the two women. Helberg had a brother who spent time at the University of Minnesota hospital recovering from the disease. She also had a five-year-old nephew who contracted polio and was then confined to a wheelchair. Gladys Henricks did not have a family member with polio but had a good friend who ended up crippled for life.

Last year the two women had an encounter that they did not expect. Henricks contracted Covid-19 and was hospitalized. Helberg was also hospitalized at the same time with pneumonia. Gladys recalled an encounter that made her realize her friend was also in the hospital.

“One day the nurse came in with some medication for me to take,” she explained. “I looked at what it was and told her that it was not something I was taking. The nurse said, ‘you are Gladys, correct?’ I said yes and then she said, ‘and you are 101 years old?’ I said yes but that is not my medicine.”

The nurse checked into it further and discovered that there were two Gladys’ in the hospital, both 101 years old.

When the nurse told Helberg about it, Helberg called the room of Henricks and the two conversed for some time.

Both gals have been active through the years. Helberg was involved with her children in the Swan Lake 4-H Club and also with her church teaching Sunday School. When her husband was alive, they attended craft sales selling crafts under the name of ‘Pound and Paint.’  They made many friends in that circuit.

Henricks has been active with the American Legion Auxiliary and also with her church, teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir and attending the women’s group. She served on the Stevens County Fair Board and worked at the county fairs. The two women would often run into each other at the fair.

What advice do they have on their longevity?

“When I think of advice, I recall a rhyme I learned,” said Helberg, “A peanut laid on the railroad tracks, its heart was all a flutter. A train came down the track, toot toot peanut butter.”

It is not always easy to be at their age. They have lost most of their friends and even children.

“When it gets me down,” said Helberg, “I decide to do something about it. I go for a walk or make a phone call and that helps.”

Despite the fact that both women use a walker to get around, they do have all their original joints even though these give them lots of aches and pains. Through the memories, heartaches and pain they both vow to do one thing - simply take life one day at a time and cherish every minute they are given.

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