What are the ingredients for an interesting life? What happens in a person when they see 100 years of our history unfold? I spoke with Fred Peters about just these things the other day as we sat discussing his 100 years on our planet.
My husband and I have lived next door to Fred Peters for the past 17 years. He is a charming, gracious, and helpful neighbor. He was a loyal and supportive husband to his wife Martha, who passed away in 2010, and he is an involved and well-loved father and grandfather. His two daughters visit regularly, and he often walks their dogs when they are out of town.
Fred is well-liked. He is at most of the neighborhood gatherings, and we all enjoy his wit, his singing, and one terrific poem we often request (an ode to an outhouse). With his stories and his barbershop-style singing, Fred manages not only to connect us to the good ol’ days, which for him began as the fifth of eight children on a farm in North Dakota, but also to navigate along with the rest of us as we figure out life in the 21st Century.
Fred’s grandfather, with his family of six, emigrated from Germany to Canton, Ohio, in 1891. He and Fred’s father each laid claim to a quarter section (160 acres of land) in central North Dakota under the Homestead Act, which was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln. They were both original “sodbusters,” said Fred, “who ‘broke’ the thick, rich prairie with a one-bottom sulky plow, pulled by a team of five horses.” His father lived in a sod dugout while he built his 14'×20' frame house. After losing his left hand in a shotgun accident, Fred’s father studied bookkeeping in St. Louis, married, and had four children in Minneapolis before moving back to his own homestead in 1922. Fred was born on November 1, 1917, during a one-year family visit to his grandfather’s farm.
Fred left North Dakota in 1939 and moved to Washington, D.C., to work in the Census Bureau. His compensation was $3.45 per diem! In 1940, he transferred to the War Department and brushed up on his German at George Washington University. He was called up to serve in the Army in March 1943.
After the war, life in D.C. included marrying Martha in 1948, having three children — Carla, Randy (who passed away in 1982), and Sue — and working for the U.S. Government until 1973. He has now been retired longer than he was employed.
I asked Fred how he occupied himself after retiring at 56. He lit up! Music was his gift. Although the farm in North Dakota didn’t even have a radio, Fred took to music easily, with a keen interest and good voice. He joined a church choir upon moving to Washington, and he even joined a small men’s choir in the Army. In 1955, Fred joined a Barbershop Harmony group and performed with them everywhere. They sang in nursing homes, schools, and auditoriums locally, and even went to Germany to entertain the troops. Today, Fred sings in his church choir and still sings with his group, the Singing Capital Chorus, having missed only one of their annual concerts in 63 years.
Fred remembers many notable events in his lifetime — FDR’s speech upon entering World War II, the JFK assassination, 9/11, and, on the more positive side, his marriage and the births of his children. We spoke about the local area as well, remembering the Stone House Inn, Fred and Harry’s restaurant, Doc’s drugstore, and People’s drug across the street (which became CVS), the Library in Four Corners, and even being in the Kinsman farm’s ice house.
What does all this add up to? While reflecting on these and other things with Fred, he told me about when his father realized he was dying and called Fred to his home in North Dakota. His father said he was sorry for all the things he was not going to see, but Fred said he personally is a bit worried about the things he might see. He lamented that races are divided, that families seem to have less time together, and that political division is rampant. He also mentioned that he misses hand-written notes and wonders about the value of having so many devices.
In looking at Fred as an example, it appears that to get to 100 one ought to eat well, take lots of vitamins, exercise regularly (he still goes to the gym twice a week), try to live stress-free, and don’t concern yourself with what others are doing since you can’t control their behavior at any rate.
I pushed a bit, hungry for insight from someone with so many years of life experience. I directly asked, “If we would really listen, what advice would you give to those of us behind you?” He smiled, and his eyes softened as he said, “I don’t give advice ... and, at my age, I don’t get any either.”
Happy Birthday, Dear Fred.
[Editor’s Note: Fred Peters has been a distributor of this newsletter on Edgewood Avenue for many years. Update: Fred Peters died on 29 June 2020 at the age of 102.] ■
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