Ivan Adam Reaches One Hundred
April 14 will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage. It was world news, the unsinkable ship that sank. Ten days earlier in a farm house in Kansas, Toney Adams’ wife Sadie gave birth to Ivan Adams.
On April 1, 2012, Adams’ four children threw him a birth celebration to honor his 100 years of life. The dining hall of Parkwood Village, the assisted living facility where Ivan lives with his wife Melva, was filled with family, friends, and acquaintances. A line stretched out the dining area, through the hall and to the front door, full of guests waiting to write a favorite memory and wish the man well. Adams sat quietly next to his wife enduring the barrage of pictures and shaking hands with guests.
Ashley Greeno brings her 10 month old baby girl to sit on Adams’ knee. “Now who do you belong to?” Adams asks, slower to recall than he once was.
“I’m Brad’s oldest,” Greeno reminds him with a smile, linking herself to his grandson. “And this is Lily.” The baby is wearing overalls just like her great great grandfather wore nearly everyday of his life. She looks up at him and reaches toward his lips, he smiles down at her.
“Weeelll,” Adams says slowly, in the way his great grandkids now love to say endearingly.
Reuben Perry Adams was a part-time Baptist preacher when he moved from Rosedale, Indiana, to Mt. Knob, MO, and then to Pratt in 1892 and began farming. Reuben and his wife Mary Jane were the parents of nine children, including Toney Adams. Toney met Sadie Belle Williams at the Sunnyside Country School, a one room schoolhouse. Toney and Sadie later married and had five boys, Harold, Clyde, Merle, Carl and Ivan. In 1898 Toney bought 160 acres in northeast Cullison, Kansas, for $750. Ivan was the youngest.
In their Parkwood Village apartment, Ivan sits at a table next to Melva, who’s sitting in an automated wheelchair, and together they sort through the flood of birthday cards. “It went like that,” he says about 100 years, snapping his fingers. Adams has lived 36,527 days, his great great granddaughter has been around for 285 Earth turns. A 20 year old with the same birthday as Adams has had 7,306 mornings. The stars have come up 18,264 times for a 50 year old, and the sun shines 29,222 times on the average American. After Adams spoke he sat for a long, quiet pause holding up his thumb and index finger with a centimeter gap in between.
The walls of the small apartment are covered with pictures of grandkids and their families, young smiling faces in sports uniforms and dressed up for dances. Adams gets frustrated with himself for things he’s not able to recall. “Every time I go see the doctor he tests my memory,” Adams says in his slow drawl. “He asked me to name all the animals I can think of,” he pauses thoughtfully, “you’d be surprised how quick that list ends.”
Doctors say he’s been suffering mini strokes over the past few months, direct causes to the recent slip. It was only a five years ago that his kids urged him to move into assisted living, the burden of caring for his dementia-stricken wife was too much for a man whose health was in decline as well. Though, Ivan would never have admitted that. “I think he’s waiting to go so he can take care of her,” says Brad Grimes, one of Adams’ grandkids.
“Daddy tells a story of someone asking him what he credits for making it to 100 hundred,” his daughter Marie tells a group of family members in town for the celebration. “He told him, ‘I never drank, I never smoke, and I only had one woman.’ That guy told him, ‘you never had any fun, did ya?’” And the group breaks into chuckles.
It was only a few years before moving to assisted living that Adams made regular trips to his farm, even driving himself and working on machinery. Around age 85 was when he moved off the farm to a house in Pratt, again at the prompting of his children. The farm is now run by his oldest child, Dwight, who has opened the farm to hunting. The house that Toney Adams bought in 1898 is now used as a lodge for hunters. The 160 acres has grown over time to nearly 2000 acres, 500 owned privately by Ivan and Melva, the rest in the name of the family corporation.
Adams began farming on his own in the 30s. “I had one horse to plow, I could plant one row of corn a day,” Adams recalled, that plow has is now on display at the Pratt Museum. Adams looks down at the floor while he brings the memories together, his brain warming up like an old John Deere tractor that sat through the cold winter. “My first job was herding cattle, makin’ about a $1 a day,” Adams recalls.
“’35,” says Adams’ wife, Melva, when Ivan hesitates to remember the year they were married. She recalls the ‘30s easier than what she had for breakfast (dementia affects short term memory more than long term). “I came from a family of all girls and he came from a family of all boys.” Conditions for farming weren’t the best when they began their family, earning their living on 1 quarter and 240 acres. “The dust bowl wasn’t very funny, all you could see was dirt. Lot of people died from the heat.”
“I remember traveling out to western Kansas, probably in…” Adams pauses trying to recall the dates, “I used to be able to remember these dates no problem. Maybe ’37 we went out there and there was dirt gathered around a fence post and all you could see was the very top of that post.”
Melva chimed in, “He came from a family of all boys and I was from a family of all girls,” forgetting she already said it.
“I went to the doctor and he told me I wadn’t comin back to see him,” Adams says, twisting his face thoughtfully. “I thought about that every day for seven months tryin to figure what he meant by that. Then I asked him about it last time I saw him.”
“When was that?” grandson, Grimes, asks uncertain of the meaning of the story.
“Last Friday,” Adams told him. “Let’s just drop that,” he said in his matter-of-fact way.
In 1946 Ivan and Melva remodeled an old farm house to accommodate for their growing family. They had five children in all, the oldest was their boy, Dwight, followed by four girls, twins Margaret and Marjorie, Marie and Marlene. Marjorie died of cancer in the 90s. “I never saw him cry when she died,” Grimes recalls, “but he had tears in his eyes after the funeral and he told me, ‘no parent should have to bury their children, that’s just not how it works.’”
When asked what advice he would give on parenting Adams responded, “Well, it depends. What kind of family do you want?” It’s not uncommon for him to answer a question with a question. He paused to think. “Teach ‘em to the right, and don’t let ‘em start to the left, there’s too many distractions out there to get ‘em on the wrong track.” He waited before speaking again, “The thing I enjoyed about parenting was how different each kid was. They all had unique personalities.”
Melva and Ivan will celebrate their wedding anniversary this summer. “She lived down the road from me and we rode the same bus,” Adams said. “I liked her and wanted to get her attention so I pushed her off the school bus. And ooh man was she mad.”
“Then I ended up marrying him,” Mrs. Adams said a smile forming on her thin, wrinkled lips.
“Here we are 77 years later,” said Adams. He shies away from longwinded answers, unless you get him on a story, so when asked if he had marriage advice it was quick and concise, “When you have differences throw ‘em away. They’re not worth it.”
“Here’s a story for ya, just thought of it,” he said, quick to change the subject off of himself, “Out on the farm we had a grain silo that went about 30-foot down. The chickens would get down there and get stuck. So, me being the youngest I’d have to go and fetch ‘em. My brothers would tie a rope around my waist and lower me down and I’d grab a handful and my brothers would bring me back up.” His mind was heating up now and he remembered another, “I was on a standup plow behind a team of mules and they took off on me. It threw me to the ground. Boyy I thought I was done for then.”
The closest brother in age died in 1981. The down side of living to 100 is outliving loved ones. “I remember him telling me when we were still farming together,” Grimes said, “’I’m sick of going to funerals’ and that was 20 years ago.”
“He was never much of talker,” Grimes said, who farmed with Adams from the late 70s to the mid-90s.
“He was so cute,” Marie recalls with a distant gaze. “He would wear his little overalls to match his granddad. They would go out and farm together and Brad would really think he was helping.”
“He was a lot stronger than he looked,” Grimes said. “One time I was working on a tractor and there was a nut I just could not get loose. This was when I was in high school and I was lifting weights everyday and thought I was really tough. I told granddad, we had to try something else ‘cause that just wasn’t comin off. Granddad said, ‘let me try,’ and he walked over there broke that sucker loose the first try. Remember, he was at least a 65 year-old man at that time. He never looked at me, never said a word, just walked away. And I was left there with my tail between my legs,” he says laughing.
Grimes asks his granddad, “Has the media always been the way it is now with people nearly fighting with each other? I mean has that disrespect in politics always been there?”
“Noo,” Adams replies, he taps the wood table while he thinks. “There was never so much media, no 24-hour news or instant updates or all these news shows. If someone had something to say, you listened because it was important. When Eisenhower opened his head people paid attention. And you didn’t dare talk bad about the President.” Adams ironically uses a Republican President as an example, when he himself was a lifelong Democrat.
I remember in grade school it was a rare treat to stop by the donut shop in Pratt on the way to school. Every time I would see my great grandpa in his overalls drinking coffee and making jokes with other farmers. When I was 11 our family moved and I saw him less, but when I did he would always have a story, one of my favorites I heard more than once.
“I only tried cigarettes once. My brother took me behind the barn and gave it to me and it made me so sick, I started throwin’ up everywhere,” he smiled as he looked back. “My mom came out to see what was wrong and she immediately put it together and turned around and walked back in the house. That was so unlike her not be concerned over me, but I thought about that later. She knew what she was doin.”
He taught me that some of the most powerful statements are the ones that go unspoken. As I grow older I learn to appreciate this man more and more. In the information age with every possible fact carried in our pockets my granddad reminds me how vast the difference between knowledge and wisdom.
Adams’ advice is summed up quickly, “good common sense,” he said genuinely, nodding his head.
“I’ve told you a few stories now why don’t you tell me one,” Adams says after a while, clearly ready to rest.