Irene Richmond of Marion probably has had more than her share of sad times, but she is resilient and makes the most of every year she is given.
Although no one would guess it by looking at her, Irene will be 95 years old on Friday.
She received the biggest blow of her life in February 1981, when her son, Jimmy, died in a car accident. Upon hearing the news, her husband, Lonnie Smith, collapsed and died of a massive heart attack.
“It was a terrible shock,” Irene recalled. “I still can’t remember some things from that time.”
Her grandson, Nathan, was a senior at Marion High School, and the MHS Swing Singers sang at the double funeral.
Irene’s family helped her get through the ordeal. Jimmy’s wife, Phoebe (now Phoebe Holdeman), asked Irene to care for her two children while Phoebe trained to become an insurance agent. Friends took Irene on a trip to the Grand Ole Opry.
She said her employer, Dr. Elmer Schroeder, a dentist, was good to her. He granted days off when she needed them and he did fillings and cleanings free of charge for her family. She worked for him as a dental assistant for 29½ years before retiring in 1982.
Irene was born in 1916 on a small farm in eastern New Mexico. Her parents, James and Olga McKibben, moved to Marion when she was 3 years old. She graduated from Marion High School in 1934.
Irene remembers the years of the Great Depression. Everything was cheap, but money was hard to come by.
“My class ring was $5, and we could hardly get enough money to pay for it,” she said.
Her mother planted a garden and bought boxes of peaches to preserve. Her father worked jobs wherever he could find them. Sometimes he worked for farmers in exchange for wheat for flour or a pig to butcher.
“Getting a store-bought 10-cent loaf of bread was special,” she recalled.
Irene married Lonnie Smith in January 1935. They lived various places including on a farmstead at Chingawassa Springs, northeast of Marion. They had a milk cow and chickens and got water from the springs.
After Jimmy was born, they lived in New Mexico for two years. Irene remembers the hot summer of 1936. With no air conditioning and no fans, the best the family could do at night was to lie down on the linoleum floors, but they were hot, too.
One day, the temperature rose as high as 114 degrees, but the family didn’t know it.
“We didn’t have thermostats back then,” Irene said. “We were just miserable.”
However, the heat had an end. Green beans planted around a straw stack had dried down to mere sticks, but the rain came, and they bounced back to produce an abundant crop.
Fortunately, the family missed the ice storm and grasshopper plague that occurred in Kansas during that time.
The Smiths moved back to Marion after that, where Irene has lived ever since. Her other two children, Elsie and Ray, were born in Marion.
The family was living near the Bown-Corby school in the valley when the flood of 1951 occurred. At least 27 inches of water came into their house.
“It was a mess,” Irene said.
They cleaned the floors, washed the walls, and used fans to dry out the house. Months later, they discovered furniture legs had rotted from standing in water.
Another chance at life
Irene married her second husband, Jess Richmond, in 1982 and gained another family. Jess died in January 2005.
Irene had the misfortune of breaking her hip last summer. After spending two-and-a-half weeks in the hospital, she asked her doctor if she would ever walk again.
“It’s up to you,” he said.
Being a stubborn woman, to use her own words, she said that remark made her determined to do so. Working with a physical therapist at her home, she soon abandoned her walker. Now, she is back to normal and continues to take care of herself.
Making mobiles with ribbon and painting pictures were two of her hobbies. She took 23 hours of art classes at Butler Community College.
The walls of Irene’s apartment in Sunrise Town Homes in Marion are adorned with her paintings. African violets grace several windows.
She took time out from painting while her daughter, Elsie Burkholder, was ill. Elsie died a few months ago.
Irene hopes to finish a painting of the old mill at Cedar Point. She also hopes to paint a Chingawassa Springs scene that reflects the health resort that was established there in the late 1880s.
Irene still is licensed to drive but restricts her driving to Marion. She shares car-pooling with Ann Boese and Pearl Helmer to Marion Senior Center each weekday for the noon meal.
Looking back over her life, Irene marvels at the changes she has seen. As a youngster, she said, every time an airplane flew over, she and her siblings ran outside to watch it.
And when man landed on the moon? “I thought they were nuts,” she said.
“We can’t take much bigger strides except in medicine,” she reflected.
She doesn’t own a computer but has a cell phone her family bought for her. She said she uses it mainly to make long distance calls.
In addition to two husbands, Irene has outlived all three of her children. She has many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She also has five great-great-grandchildren and another one on the way. She takes delight in her family and enjoys being “Grandma” to so many.
“I have experienced some sad things, but mostly good,” she said. “I try to look on the bright side of things.”
Irene is not sure what plans are being made to celebrate her birthday, but she said she would be content to be at home on her birthday and make her daily trip to the senior center.
She has learned to take life one year at a time.
“I’m satisfied if I make it to 95,” she said. “After that, it’s up to the Lord.”