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Tillie takes life in stride: Bemidji resident turns 104 today

Tillie O’Rear turns 104-years-old today. She is the second Bemidji resident to hit that mark this year. O’Rear lived on her own up until one month ago before moving to an assisted living facility. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — Tillie O’Rear vividly recalls when she and her family first moved to the region.

It was 1917 and Tillie was 8 years old.

Her family of nine, led by her parents, Anton and Sophie Kolkin, had moved to Frohn Township from southeastern Minnesota to grow the family farm.

“It was just a dumpy little town with a lot of bootleggers and lumberjacks,” she said, recalling the Bemidji from her childhood. “When we first came, we hardly ever came to Bemidji. My dad, of course, came for business but we went to take all the cream to Rosby.

Tillie today turns 104 years old. She is believed to be the second 104-year-old Bemidji resident, joining Elsye McGuire, who celebrated her birthday in August at Goldpine Home.

Tillie has always been relatively healthy, she noted.

“’Til I was 93, then the crap hit the fan,” she added.

She still isn’t ill, but she has had a stroke and an artificial hip. She remains quite sharp.

“I drove my own car until last year,” she said.

In fact, it wasn’t until a month ago that she moved out of her two-bedroom apartment near Paul Bunyan Mall and into assisted living.

“That was a mess, let me tell you,” she said, noting the possessions she had accumulated throughout her time there. “I had 18 years in that apartment, you cannot imagine all the stuff I had.”

Her son, the Rev. T.J. O’Rear, who lives in England with his wife and two children, spent three weeks in Bemidji as he moved Tillie into her new home.

T.J., his wife Cindy, and their two children, now 12 and 9, threw her a big 100th birthday party in 2009, but this year, T.J. and Tillie together marked her then-upcoming birthday while he was in town.

But now, with the actual date having arrived, two get-togethers are planned this weekend. The first is today at Cedar Cottage and another is Sunday at her church, the Bemidji United Methodist Church.

An eventful life

Her life has afforded her a range of experiences.

“I remember World War I, II, III, whatever,” she said. She remembers the introduction of the television and its eventual popularity.

She got her first job at age 17, serving as a “plug monkey” at Northwestern Bell in Bemidji, at which time she moved out of her parents’ home and into a rented room in town.

Tillie married David O’Rear in 1933 on a weekend visit to Minneapolis. They were married 66 years before he died in January 2000.

Together, they lived in Texas, during David’s time in the service during WWII. He never served overseas though, as David, thanks to his typing and shorthand skills, was assigned to work in the judge advocate’s office.

They lived in Redby, where David managed the Red Lake Fisheries; and they lived in Minot, N.D., where they opened a Karmelkorn franchise and then toured the country serving as supervisor and trainers.

“That was great,” Tillie said, fondly remember their 11 years with the company. “That was the greatest job.”

She and David moved back to the area upon their retirement, purchasing a place on Grace Lake, where they spent 20 years together.

“That was a great place,” she said. “We loved it there.”

A look at some numbers

As for longevity, Tillie said her father died at around age 76 and her mother at 68-years-old. One sister lived to the age of 93, though the other died younger; and all her brothers died around 88 to 91 years old.

The Gerontology Research Group tracks supercentenarians, or those who are believed to be 110 years old or older.

There is one confirmed Minnesotan on the GRG’s list of validated supercentenarians, Anna Stoehr, who celebrated her 113th birthday in Elgin, Minn., earlier this month. Stoehr is believed to be tied for the 13th-oldest resident in the world.

As of Monday, there were 63 validated supercentarians, 62 of whom were female. The oldest-living person is Misao Okawa, who is 115 years and 235 days old today, according to GRG.

Susan Brower, the Minnesota state demographer, provided the Pioneer with statistics obtained through the 2010 U.S. Census.

According to her spreadsheet:

- The state had at the time 1,211 residents 100-years-old and older, with the vast majority — 1,041 — being females.

- Beltrami County at that time had 11 residents 100 years old at older, including eight females aged 100 to 104 and three males 100 to 104 years old.

- Cass County had nine 100- to 104-year-old females and one male in the same age bracket. 

- Clearwater and Hubbard counties each had four females 100- to 104-years-old.

Two celebrations

There are two get-togethers planned this weekend to mark Tillie’s 104th birthday.

Today, Cedar Cottage invites family and friends to come celebrate from 2-4 p.m.

On Sunday, Tillie’s friends at Bemidji United Methodist Church invite her friends for some fellowship, cake and coffee at about 11:30 a.m. (after the 10:30 a.m. service) in the church lounge.