BY CARMEN SIERING
When people meet healthy centenarians, they frequently ask the same question: What’s the secret to a long life? If you ask Helen Zike, who turns 102 on September 7, she’ll tell you: work hard, stay connected to family and community, and have a tenacious spirit.
Helen Blackwell was born in 1912 on a farm north of Bedford, Indiana. “We were poor, but we didn’t know it,” she says of life in the country where her family, like nearly everyone else, grew most of their food and recycled feed sacks to make everything from blouses to bedcovers. She was just 11 when her mother became chronically ill. It fell to Helen to take on the household chores. “I did the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry,” she says. “It wasn’t easy, especially the laundry, where you heated water on the stove and washed the clothes in a tub with a scrub board.” As her mother’s health worsened, Helen left high school to care for her family, including three younger sisters.
Helen met Glen Zike when she was 17. “We went together for years and years before our parents knew it,” she says, laughing. They got married when Helen was 23 — “practically an old maid,” she says — and had four children: Joyanne, Kenneth, Glenda, and Jerry. Helen will tell you she “stayed home, I didn’t work,” but Glen was a farmer, and she was a farm wife. In 1947 they bought 140 acres just outside Bloomington where they grew oats and raised cattle, hogs, horses, and 200 chickens, allowing Helen to sell eggs to Hays Market until the mid-1960s. A 3-acre tobacco field was a big part of the farm’s operation. Glen and Helen recruited the kids to help, and hired in others as needed, but for 40 years they worked the tobacco field side by side.
They played together, too. Helen says as soon as they got the tobacco in the barn, they would “take off,” and over the years they visited every state except Alaska, Hawaii, and Rhode Island.
Glen died in December 1995, just after their 60th wedding anniversary. Helen stayed in the farmhouse they had shared for another five years, then, in 2000, her son, Kenneth, built a new home for her, the first in the Rolling Glen housing development built on the old farm and named in honor of her husband. She still lives there, on her own, with family members checking to make sure she’s doing fine. She is.
“She’s probably healthier than I am,” says daughter-in-law Tresia Zike, who lives across the street. “She takes care of herself. She cooks her own meals, cleans her own house. She doesn’t need any care. And she likes her independence.”
Helen is a little less mobile — she started using a walker last year — but she stays busy, going out to breakfast on Saturdays, seeing her doctor every six months, and continuing to take part in the Good Neighbors Extension Homemakers Club she’s belonged to for 20 years. She’s an avid quilter who’s entered a quilt in the Monroe County Fair every year for the past 40, and she has an entry, every tiny stitch done by hand, ready for 2014.
Helen’s answer to the question about how to live a healthy life? “Do something for somebody else, not always for yourself,” she says. “Keep busy, keep interested, and don’t sit down and quit.”