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Jim Hillestad turns 100; pandemic spoils party...

Imagine what you could see and do in 100 years. Jim Hillestad of Kenmare has seen it and done it.

4/28/20 (Tue)

Imagine what you could see and do in 100 years. Jim Hillestad of Kenmare has seen it and done it.

He was born in 1920, the year radio first became commercially available in the United States. He lived through the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years and was part of the Civilian Conservation Corps. He was drafted into World War II and fought the Japanese. He came home and started an antique business and rented furniture.

When he was born, air travel was something new and quite experimental. Less than 50 years later, he saw men land on the moon.

He was 53 years old by the time Watergate happened and Nixon resigned. He saw the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and was there for Kenmare’s Centennial in 1997.

 And now that he’s turned 100, the greatest pandemic in 102 years has dashed a much anticipated birthday party that was beginning to resonate through the community before the coronavirus hit.

Hillestad, who lives at home with his wife Sylvia and son Kelly, turned 100 on Tuesday, making him Kenmare’s only centenarian.

There was a lot of anticipation leading up to April as Hillestad’s family members were all planning to come home, including daughter Terri, who lives in Australia.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit, changing everything and closing down the Kenmare Senior Center where his party was to be held. At this point, family members aren’t sure if a party can be rescheduled.

He’s disappointed, but understands the implications of the pandemic.

“We had a big party planned, but it’s gone now,” Hillestad said. “Six were coming from Australia, Kentucky, California, Florida. My two daughters had it all planned. They’re talking about it. The talk is we’re still going to have a party.”

And with family scattered across two countries, the party would have been a good reason for everyone to be in the same place at the same time.

“To me, it was looking more like a family reunion,” he said. “It would get everybody together.”

When asked if he would ever see the day that he would hit 100... “Nope, sure didn’t.”

He did, however, have a sister, Lilly DeVore, who lived to be 103 years old.

“When my folks had their golden wedding anniversary, I said I wouldn’t have to get ready because I would have been 80,” Hillestad said. “That was 20 years ago.”

Hillestad has had a long and storied life. He spent a lot of those years in the antique business and only recently sold out to a family in Granville.

“And now I’m a genuine antique,” he said.

He got started back in the missile days of the early 1970s. At the same time, he rented furniture to the missile workers at 10 percent of value in a lot of houses around town.

“I miss my antiques and the auction was one that killed me,” Hillestad said. “I have a lot of friends in Canada and have only seen one of them since then.”

He explained “the killing” was the money he had to pay for radio advertising to announce the auction.

It’s seems amazing that Hillestad has all his wits about him, physically is as mobile as any of the rest of us and is sharp enough to crack a joke now and then.

But what is truly remarkable is his memory. He can recall many things throughout his life that have become obscure history.

As an example, when he was 5 years old, he said there was an old bachelor who lived three miles south of the farm he grew up on.

He said the old bachelor invited everyone in the Hillestad family to his house to see and listen to this piece of furniture that “picked music right out of the air.”

That was 1925 and was only five years after Pittsburgh radio station KDKA went on the air to broadcast 1920 presidential election results.

He said the station was only on the air for one hour a day and was likely CHAB in Moose Jaw which went on the air in 1922. KLPM in Minot wouldn’t go on the air until 1929.

Another of his solid memories includes a Kenmare business his parents once owned. Sometime during his young life, his parents had the City Cafe and he recalls his mother putting up a sign that said “hometown cooking, 25 cents.”

His parents also made available a weekly ticket... meals for a week... for $5.

Still another monumental memory came after the war when he went to work for his brother who had a 1936 Ford truck that was always breaking down.

Sometime during that time period, he had a conversation with Clayton Sand, who owned a Studebaker dealership. Sand kept bugging Hillestad about giving him a list of the features he might want in a new truck.

He then told Hillestad to produce his discharge papers and the former Soldier brought his papers to Sand. Hillestad asked him what he was up to and all he told the young man was he had an idea.

And, as Hillestad described, he didn’t have any money and couldn’t afford a new truck. Once again, Sand said he had an idea.

“Less than a week later Sand said ‘the truck is on the road and you better gather up your money,’” Hillestad said. “My brother went around to every board member of the credit union and he got the money to buy the truck. That was a big deal.”

Meeting Sylvia for the first time was also unique to Hillestad. He was in a parade going through Kenmare that stopped in front of the hardware store.

Hillestad was on a horse and he said there was a young girl flirting with him so he had some fun with the moment.

The next day his brother sent him to Tolley to pick up some horses and there was the same girl. He waved at her and she quickly shut the curtains.

“Then I went roller skating at Lakeview and there was the same girl,” he said. “I skated with her and we got acquainted.”

There was an event coming up and Hillestad didn’t want to go alone so he called Sylvia and she agreed to go with him.

“When I got there to pick her up at 7, she was just coming out of the barn with two pails of milk,” he said. “That darn sister.”

Hillestad didn’t go to high school, but during those years, he read a lot and became fascinated with the Burma Road, infastructure that led from Burma, now Myanmar, to the southwest of China.

Built in the 1930s using 200,000 Chinese workers, the route is a rugged mountain road.

“When I was 17, everybody laughed at me because I said if I live to be 100, I’d drive the Burma Road,” Hillestad said. “And I did. Can you imagine a farm boy with a dream like that.”

It was only about six or seven years later that he actually did drive that road after he was drafted into the Army and ended up in Burma in a radar unit.

Prior to that, he spent time in the CCC camps. During his second go round, he turned 21 and knew he had to sign up for the draft which would plunge him into World War II.

“They asked what kind of work I wanted to do and I asked for a truck driver spot,” he said. “I did the written test and drove around.”

When he got into the Army and was about to be assigned to a field artillery unit, the word got out and he was moved. His sergeant put in a good word for him since he already proved to be a good driver.

“We were told there was a guy coming who’s starting up a secretive company,” Hillestad recalled. “When he got there and we had a meeting, he (sergeant) said James Hillestad will be that driver. They took us back to Drew Field and we found out it was radar.”

Drew Field was on the same site where the Tampa International Airport is now located.

Oddly enough, during the course of getting settled into this early ‘40s cutting-edge technology, Hillestad ended up becoming an instructor and taught Soldiers how to set up the radar units.

“I didn’t have a lot of education. I had eighth grade,” he said. “I lost two years because of scarlet fever and I went deaf.”

He added, “but it wasn’t that bad of  a deal. Most of us were out of high school or college, but none of them knew how to work. I knew how to work”

Hillestad became a good enough instructor and was told he would have a lifetime job in Tampa if he wanted it. But, he said, he had trouble with an officer.

“The colonel came out and wanted me to take out an extra $6,000 in life insurance,” Hillestad said. “He said ‘out of 3,000 men, you’re the only one at $4,000 and you’re screwing up the payroll system.’ He said I only needed it if I went overseas. There went my job.”

He was a private first class, but was assigned as a crew chief right away after getting to Burma, sandwiched between Bangladesh and Laos in southeast Asia.

He said Merrill’s Marauders, officially named the 5307th Composite Unit that was a long range penetration special operations jungle warfare unit, had cut off the Burma Road to stop a Japanese supply line.

Unfortunately, it also caused problems for the Americans. Hillestad said loaded cargo planes couldn’t get over a mountain they called “the hump” and the United States was losing a plane a day because they had to go through a valley and were getting shot down.

Hillestad recalls vividly during another briefing that his fate was sealed and that he would indeed drive the Burma Road.

The conversation between his superiors went something like this:

“We’ve got to have a radar unit on the Burma Road,” he remembers one of the leaders saying. The other said, “I’ve got a man who taught it for a year.’ They were loading the plane as we spoke, so I set up a radar unit and after that radar got set up, we never lost another plane.”

Hillestad is quick to talk about the war and some of the things he did, including surveilling Japanese soldiers.

But something else he hasn’t forgotten was when the war ended, the troops were on their way home and the symbolism of a familiar product they were used to before they left, hit the troops harder than Japanese artillery.

“When we came home, they wouldn’t let us past a three-mile limit right away, but we could see New York,” Hillestad said of the ship he was on. “It was the strangest sight I ever saw. A commercial about breakfast cereal came on the radio and you could have heard a pin drop. Here we were, 3,000 hardened Soldiers and we were crying like babies.”

Hillestad believes his secret to longevity is being mobile. According to Sir Isaac Newton, a body in motion tends to stay in motion.

“I cant’ stand sitting,” he said. “I have to be doing something.”

And now that the antique business is in the past, he rigged up his basement as a workshop and has been doing various projects including making birdhouses out of old boots.

These days, he says he lies awake at night thinking about the coronavirus and has his own theory about how it has effected so much of the world so quickly.

“It’s dirty air,” he said. “How could anything travel around the world in two weeks. We’re putting too much in the air.”

When he’s not tinkering, Hillestad is enjoying the flora in the neighborhood, something he admits he is very content with doing.

“I love trees and for the past 10 years I’ve sat outside and watched the trees change color in the fall,” he said. “There are 12 species I can see from my yard. I can’t identify what they all are, but I can see them. Sometimes I think, will I ever see leaves again and I do. And sometimes I think will I ever see the fall colors again. This past winter I thought will I ever see leaves again and now I’m seeing buds.” ... 

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