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Kenmare woman turns 100
Gladys Claxton has filled a long life with a sales career, painting, photography, tatting and the miracles of friends and family
Gladys Claxton turns 100 years young in Kenmare on December 18th.
By Caroline Downs
If you stop by the Baptist Home of Kenmare and chat with Gladys Claxton, who will turn 100 on Saturday, you’ll find out she credits her years to her late spouse, Kenneth Claxton.
“I had a wonderful husband who sure knew how to cook!” she said. Then she smiled as she indicated his photo, an 8x10 color portrait that holds a place of honor on top of a chest of drawers in her Assisted Living apartment. The two have been separated only since 2006, and Gladys plainly misses her best friend and love of her life.
Gladys was born December 18, 1910, as the oldest child of Otto and Thea Staael, who farmed in Greenbush Township at the time. The family later moved to a farm seven miles east of Kenmare and eventually into town so Gladys could attend high school. She was also confirmed at Nazareth Lutheran Church.
She moved to Minot after graduation and found employment with the City Bakery and then the Minot Steam Laundry. In 1943, however, after a difficult first marriage and one especially horrendous snowstorm, Gladys packed her bags for California.
“That was a heavenly place where I had sunshine all the time,” she said. “But so many people came down at the train to bid me goodbye. Then I wondered.”
A cousin already lived in the Golden State, so her residence was Gladys’s first destination. She found work managing a cleaning shop in San Bruno, where she met Kenneth. “He kept walking by the shop,” she said. “Finally, one day he decided he wanted to come in and meet me.”
Kenneth had arrived from Chicago and worked for the Standard Oil Company. The couple spent the next two years dating as good friends because Gladys had told him she didn’t want to marry. She finally relented, however, on a night after Kenneth prepared one of his fine meals for her and her roommate. The Claxtons celebrated their marriage on January 29, 1949.
“He refused to let me work,” Gladys said as she described giving up her job at the cleaning shop, where business had grown under her watchful eye. “That lasted for seven years. Finally, I convinced him!”
The couple moved a few times during those seven years for Kenneth’s job, finally landing in the Walnut Creek area. As someone who had sewed her own wardrobe for years, Gladys went to work for Sears, Roebuck & Co. in the vacuum and sewing machine department of the company’s store at the Sun Valley Mall in Concord, the first mall built on the West Coast.
“My mother was such a good seamstress and I learned from her,” she said. “That’s why I went to work at Sears. I’d go in and tell the manager what to do with their sewing machines!”
Gladys’s knowledge of the equipment and her natural sales ability soon outpaced that of her male co-workers. “By my second month, I had the sales way up,” she said, adding that female customers tended to trust the advice and experience of another woman when it came to sewing machines. She became manager of the department, the first woman to hold that position for Sears anywhere in the nation.
She spent 16 years in the role, then took on furniture sales. “They told me, ‘You’ll be fighting all men,’” she said, “and it was one woman and 12 men in my department.” Again, Gladys’s sales skills proved outstanding, and she continued until she retired in 1974.
Kenneth worked for another year before he retired from Standard Oil. The couple had decided to leave their Walnut Creek home for Sun City, Arizona, where Kenneth’s sister and her husband lived. Gladys’s sister and her husband lived nearby. “It was a wonderful place,” said Gladys, “and we bought a home there.”
Never one to be idle as a young adult or a senior citizen, Gladys pursued a variety of artistic endeavors throughout her life, beginning with photography. “My mom was so accomplished,” she said. “She was always doing something, and she took wedding pictures for people.”
Gladys joined the photography club in Minot after she moved there as a young woman and became quite proficient. In her first seven years of marriage to Kenneth, she continued taking photos and then oil-colored much of her collection by hand. That activity led to an interest in painting, so she watched an artist’s television program as she learned how to paint with oil colors.
“I had a studio built when we lived in Walnut Creek, and I took wedding pictures,” she said. “I took portraits, especially of children.” She even had a studio dog, her longtime companion Taffy, who would jump up on a stool and pose for photos on command.
After Gladys retired, she returned to a childhood interest in tatting, picking up a book and reteaching herself the steps a cousin had shown her years earlier. She started making doilies in several lace patterns and found an outlet for her work. “The lady of the Dollhouse in Phoenix just fell in love with it,” Gladys said. “I sold several pieces through her.”
She and Kenneth traveled extensively from their Arizona base, visiting every state in the country in their motor home. Unfortunately, during a camping trip in a mountainous area of their own state, Kenneth slipped on some boulders and broke bones and tore ligaments in one of his legs. The rescue effort was more than Gladys’s nerves could take and she lost partial vision in her left eye. “After that, I couldn’t see the colors as well,” she said.
She set aside her painting and photography tools, but continued tatting. Even today, now living with macular degeneration, she keeps working her needle. “I can still tat to make the round flowers,” she said, “but I just can’t see to connect the loops from there.”
Gladys laughed as she indicated three magnifying glasses within reach of her chair, with others stashed on her couch. “And I have every magnifying glass there is, I think,” she said. “I just wish they’d come out with something stronger!”
Today, she lives surrounded by some of her favorite paintings--colorful and detailed landscapes—and a few of the elaborate tatted doilies she kept for herself.
Gladys and Kenneth remained constant companions until October 2006, when Kenneth passed away in Arizona. At age 96, Gladys heard from her family, especially her younger brother Budd Staael in Kenmare, that she should not continue to live alone.
“Budd was two years old when I left home,” she said. “He kept coaxing me to come back here after Kenneth died.” She relented and returned to her hometown in March 2007, where she rented one of the Cottonwood Apartments downtown.
In December 2009, just before she turned 99, Gladys relocated to the Assisted Living Unit at the Baptist Home, which she enjoys. “They have good people here,” she said.
She actually celebrated her 100th birthday with a family party on August 28th, when her nieces and nephews and their children could all join her in Kenmare. After spending so many years away from North Dakota, Gladys was surprised at the response. “I got so many cards and phone calls,” she said. “It was just a miracle, because nobody knows me here anymore.”
Gladys smiled as she revealed one other secret to her long life. “I shouldn’t say this,” she said, “but it’s cigarettes.”
She smokes one pack each week, after cutting back in 1996 when Kenneth quit smoking. The Baptist Home doesn’t allow smoking in the Assisted Living apartments, but a separate smoking area is provided for the residents’ use. “I have to walk down to the smoking room and that keeps my legs working,” Gladys explained, as she leaned on her walker. “When I get down there, I take three puffs and that’s it. Then I walk back here for dinner!”
She laughed at herself and then gave a serious response to her century of life. “I’m very, very grateful,” she said. “The Lord has been so good to me and has given me so many miracles. I’ve had so many wonderful friends and family [members].”
The Baptist Home of Kenmare will celebrate Gladys’s 100th birthday on Saturday, December 18th, at 3 pm during the afternoon coffee time. Everyone is welcome to attend!