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For the week of Oct. 20, 1999 through Oct. 26, 1999

Centenarian Man

A Shoshone old-timer reminisces about the 20th

Express Staff Writer

SHOSHONE--Everyone’s amazed. Elwood Werry’s second wife, Norma, said he’s eaten bacon and eggs forever. His caretaker said he’s the sharpest person she’s ever taken care of. Even Elwood Werry himself can’t believe it’s true.

"I’ve often wondered how I’ve stayed alive as long as I have," he reflected at his home in Shoshone, grinning, pausing for effect, "because we used to do some stupid things."

Werry is 100 years and 3 months old.

He talked to a reporter on Thursday in the living room of his one-story ranch style house on the Little Wood River which runs behind his backyard.

Dressed in blue pajamas and a maroon bathrobe, he had recently awoke in time for the interview. Displaying good physical health, several times he got to his feet and retrieved documents. What’s more, his good humor often surfaced while recounting anecdotes sprinkled throughout his long life.

When he was a kid, he said he shot at dynamite sticks from 20 feet away, trying unsuccessfully to blow them up. He even smoked scraps of reed from a discarded baby buggy, trying to emulate adult smokers. As a young man, he was "an ordinary guy," he said, "got drunk every once in a while, smoked cigarettes." There were plenty of things that could have killed him.

Werry is the first to admit he doesn’t know the secret to longevity any better than the next person, but if it’s true that a long, happy life depends on having a purpose and staying active, then he is a living example of that.

Werry has even outlived the hamlet in which he was born on July 13, 1899. Doniphen, once situated just west of Hailey, was a gold mining community, but its "surface gold" ran out quickly, Werry said. He spent his youth in Broadford, now part of Hailey, attending a one-room school house.

"We didn’t have the modern conveniences we have now," he said, "but we used to have some great times up there in the Wood River Valley. There’s some great fishing, you know."

He reminisced about the "big spawners" he would catch in the Big Wood River, and how he would watch the males scratch the gravel and the females lay eggs.

He trapped mink and muskrat, too, and every morning before school, he ran the trap lines, so any caught animals wouldn’t suffer too long.

In those days before electricity, telephones, automobiles and airplanes, even the skiing was different. Forget high-speed chair-lifts and carbon-graphite equipment. Werry carved and bent his own planks, made bindings from cut-up boots and skied down Broadford Hill straddling a curtain rod for a brake.

But it wasn’t just the technology that was different. Werry insists the people were different, too. His father, for example, who was Cornish, worked his way across the Atlantic by age 15, then lived in Nevada, where he earned his living blowing up trees with dynamite to make firewood.

"Can you imagine a 15-year-old doing that today?" he asked.

And the women outlived the men, usually. Werry’s mother, who was Welsh, had four sisters who were all widowed at least once. His own father only lived until he was 69, Werry said, though his uncle lived until 98 and his aunt lived until 96.

Probably, he said, men died sooner because of the "strain of life."

Like many men in those days, he worked in the mines, first in Butte, Mont., then in Coeur d’Alene. He was working at the Triumph mine just south of Ketchum, only his fifth year as a miner, when a local doctor diagnosed him with silicosis. Ironically, the disease, which he said he still carries in his lungs, might have saved his life. He never worked in a mine again.

What he really wanted to be was a mining engineer and he enrolled at the University of Idaho to study the subject. But at age 19, he, along with the entire male student body, was conscripted by the U.S. Army during World War I. The army turned the fraternity houses into barracks, sounded reverie every morning, and drilled students on campus before class.

The war ended before Werry was shipped overseas, but finishing college in those days wasn’t easy.

"It wasn’t like today," Werry said, "where you can go to the government for your education. I ran out of money."

The next time he ran out of money he was married to Madeline Vines and had two young sons, Arthur and Elwood. The Depression hit and he moved his family to Indiana, where he worked as an inspector in the Chrysler/Dodge factory.

After two years of factory dust, however, his asthma got so bad he quit and moved back to Idaho to work for the Highway Department.

During World War II, Werry engineered military airports in Oregon for the Civil Aeronautics Authority.

Then he worked for the Idaho Department of Soil Conservation.

Elwood Werry has worn a lot of hats, but the two jobs of which he is obviously the proudest were both indispensable to the city of Shoshone.

In 1950, Werry was appointed by President Harry Truman to be the town’s postmaster.

"In those days," he said, "you had to be approved by congress. If you were a Democrat, you were approved by a Democratic congress," and vice versa.

He held the job from 1950 until 1970, when a federal law forced him to retire at age 70.

That was a disappointment to Werry, who said he was still "in pretty good shape" then. But it was lucky for Shoshone, and ultimately lucky for Werry.

The local government had been trying for years to get a sewer system installed in the city, Werry said, and some of the locals thought he was just the man for the job. He ran for mayor and won.

Werry was successful at getting the sewer system in, of which he says he’s very proud.

"Another thing I’m very proud of," he said, "is getting these railroad crossings in."

"Of course we had to kill three people before we did it," he said, referring to three high school students whose car was mangled crossing the tracks after a football game victory.

"We had everything piled up on the tracks and the Union Pacific wouldn’t [put the railroad crossings in]," he said, so the city did it, "and we haven’t had an accident since."

Werry said he doesn’t have a favorite decade in the 20th century because they all have their good points. But, he said, "I think the most outstanding thing that’s happening now is communication."

Werry said he can’t believe the difference between the era in which he was born, when it "took days to get news from the coast," and now, when "in the blink of an eye, you can talk to anybody in the world."

He said that he has no interest in using the Internet, but that he can appreciate what it does. He compared it to the first time he listened to a radio with a crowd of people in the Sun Valley Opera House. "It was just something out of this world," he said, to see the glowing needle and hear voices plucked out of the air.

"Now, if some of those people could come back and see what’s happened in the last 50 years," he said. Then, he reconsiders. "Well, they don’t have to come back. It’s me."

Werry said he doesn’t have any current plans to celebrate the millennium on New Year’s Eve. But, he added, "I’d like to see the new century. I’ll be able to see three centuries then."


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Copyright 1999 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.