It’s April Fool’s Day 2014, and the community room of the Lutz Wing Nursing Home in the Mayo Medical Clinic in Fairmont, Minn., is full of laughter. The large room is festooned with colorful helium balloons and the lively chatter of 30 or so family members from around the country who have gathered to celebrate the 105th birthday of Robert "Bob" Hilgers ’32.
While it’s not confirmed that Hilgers is St. Thomas’ oldest living alumnus, it’s safe to say the 105-year-old is among the top contenders. In 1909, the year he was born, the first Lincoln head pennies were minted and the cost of a first-class stamp was 2 cents. As a college student, he witnessed the advent of sliced bread, the beginning of the Great Depression and the discovery of Pluto. The year he received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and scientists from England split the atom.
"He aged better than any man I have ever known," Hilgers’ middle son, Jack, 74, noted, and offered this anecdote: "Some years after mom died, he would come here to the hospital to volunteer three days a week. One day he was pushing a guy around in a wheelchair, and the guy says, ‘It’s hell to get old,’ and this guy is 84. He then asks my dad, ‘How old are you?’ and dad says, ‘I’m 95!’"
Bob, Hilgers’ eldest son and an oncologist who lives in Kentucky, credits "good genetics" for his father’s longevity (Hilgers didn’t take medication until he turned 99), but also admits "it really is amazing how he’s aged."
A diverted path to St. Thomas
Bob remembers his father as unyieldingly focused. "He always kept his mind engaged," he said. It’s a trait he honed from a young age.
With dreams of becoming a chemical engineer, as a high school senior he thoroughly researched the best colleges at which to pursue a chemistry degree. Wisconsin’s Marquette University was Hilgers’ top choice. He mailed his transcript and a handwritten note requesting admittance. He was accepted, but during his first semester he developed a life-threatening peritonsillar abscess, or quincy, as the condition also is known. Unable to eat or drink, he lost a frightening amount of weight.
He returned home to Mankato to be treated by the family doctor, who prescribed he place a heat lamp close to his face, causing the abscess to enlarge then burst, thus drawing out the infection. Coincidentally, penicillin was discovered that year but was not made available to the public until the 1940s. Today, antibiotics are used to treat quincy in a more efficient (and less ghastly) manner.
After his recovery, he decided to transfer to a school closer to home. He chose the College of St. Thomas, where he counted physics professor John Madigan as his favorite teacher. He was active within his major, serving as president of the Aesculapian Club − a "pre-medics" club − and as a member of the Biologians, an all-sophomore science club.
Hilgers told the Fairmont Sentinel in 2009 that tuition at St. Thomas was $300 a semester, and he worked to pay his way. With his undergraduate years sandwiched nicely inside the Prohibition era, Hilgers told the paper, "the only way to drink was to buy a bottle of beer. It had no alcohol in it, so from the bootlegger, we would buy a bottle of alcohol. We’d … mix the two together and we had ourselves a strong beer."
Many of his memories of his time at St. Thomas have faded, but the student-run newspaper, The Purple and Gray (later The Aquin), detailed a memorable debacle from his senior year: After moving into his apartment on Portland Avenue at the beginning of fall semester, Hilgers left to spend the night at a friend’s house in Minneapolis. When he returned the next day, the newspaper reported that Hilgers "was greeted by a sign tacked to the front door stating in letters of generous size making legibility practically 100 per cent, UNDER QUARANTINE – POLIOMOLITIS." For several weeks Hilgers was forbidden from entering his residence, in effect severing access to all his worldly possessions, including his wardrobe. The article joked, "... in view of the constantly changing array he wears, it is assumed from information coming from sources close to Mr. Hilgers that the Salvation Army took its usual course of prompt and efficient relief."
Immediately following graduation with a chemistry degree, Hilgers was hired as a teacher at St. Thomas Academy, then located on the College of St. Thomas campus.
His most prominent student was one Jim Shannon, better known as Father James Shannon, who, at 35, would become St. Thomas’ youngest president in 1956 and auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis from 1965 to 1969.
With the Great Depression in full force, the school could not afford to pay Hilgers a salary his first year, so he worked for room and board − a great deal for the school, as he also supervised the student-run short-wave radio station W9NBQ and advised the Kaythodians (a physics and chemistry club) and the Biologians. The latter group he took on annual scientific spring trips to northern Minnesota.
One detail Hilgers remembers is living in Ireland Hall his first year as a teacher and receiving a "raise" of $15 per month his second year. "It wasn’t very much, was it?" he said, laughing. He also remembers that "there was a beer joint just across the street that served a glass of beer for a nickel, so that was OK."
As a young teacher, Hilgers also needed a little spending money to take Anna Lang, a St. Catherine’s student he fancied, out on dates. The two soon married, and were together for 65 years until she passed away in 2001.
An active mind
Born April 1, 1909, Hilgers would remind his three sons − Bob, Jack and Tom − every year on his birthday, and then some, that "not all fools were born on April Fool’s Day" in his typical jovial deadpan. "He must’ve told us that more than a thousand times," Jack, a guidance counselor, remembered, breaking out in laughter.
Hilgers’ lifelong pursuit of knowledge in both his work and leisure shows he was no fool.
While remarking on their father’s longevity, Hilgers’ sons Bob and Jack continually circled back to his lifelong aptitude for keeping his mind engaged and his strong sense of humor. He was "sharp as a tack" until he was 101, according to Jack, "and he was a man in moderation who always had a sense of humor regardless of the situation."
Bob agreed: "He had an active mind, always, and was exceptionally bright." He also noted, "He was very careful about saturated fats. He got in very early in that game. And he used to brag about the fact that he weighed the same as the day he got married."
Hilgers’ brightness also shone outside the educational arena. Shortly after earning a master’s degree in secondary education (from the University of Minnesota in 1938) − while teaching full time at the academy − Hilgers began construction on the family’s first home on what is now Old Shakopee Road in Bloomington, Minn.
Though Jack was an infant when his dad built the house, he remembers his father "was a self-taught handyman and craftsman. … He could do anything in the house … wallpaper, fix the plumbing, change his own oil. He was just one of those guys."
During the birthday celebration in April, Hilgers joked, "It’s surprising that I’m still around!" This, coming from a man who survived (along with his four siblings, all older sisters: Clarice, Margaret, Lori and Gertrude) the 1918 pandemic that killed more people in one year than the Black Plague of the 1300s killed in four years.
After being deferred due to his age and his three sons, Hilgers was recruited into the war effort from 1943 to 1944 as foreman of the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant in New Brighton, Minn. When the U.S. military needed more men, Hilgers was informed he would be among the next group to be drafted. "Lucky for him, the war ended before his number came up," Jack said, adding, "but the sad part was, I remember hearing about how hard it was for him to have so many of the men he taught lost in the war. It must’ve been a pretty traumatic thing to have happen, to lose all those young students."
Hilgers returned to the academy for two years, then left in 1946 to pursue a more lucrative field in industry to support his family.
His first move was risky – one that Hilgers labeled "the worst mistake of my life," Jack recalled. He sold the house he built, of which he was tremendously proud, and moved his family to Marshfield, Wis., on a friend’s promise that together they’d get rich in the tire business.
After a very brief stint, those plans dead-ended, and the Hilgers family resettled in Fairmont, where Hilgers worked briefly for Fairmont Canning before accepting a job as district manager of quality control for Stokely-Van Camp (which became Pictsweet and closed in 1992), where he worked until he retired in 1974.
Through it all he took correspondence courses − including meteorology − through the University of Minnesota to quell his hungry intellect.
Retirement left a gap of 40-plus hours for Hilgers to fill, and he wasn’t a man to lay idle.
Bob remembers that "he was always busy and on the go, but not in a maniacal kind of way. He just had an active mind." Both agreed that his hobbies helped to keep his mind young, as he always sought discovery.
Jack said, "After he retired, all of us boys got together and said, ‘Dad, what do you want?’ And he said, "I’ve always wanted a telescope.’ He had a very scientific mind."
He took up woodworking in his workshop, carving crucifixes by the dozens out of mahogany and giving them to family and friends. Rosaries and Christmas ornaments were also among his specialties. The rosaries he’d send to a priest in India. "The Christmas ornaments were very fine and intricate," Jack recalled. "They were replicas of things he saw."
Sue Hilgers, wife of Hilgers’ youngest son, Tom, who is also a doctor, remarked that he also took up painting. And when he developed a quiver in his right (dominant) hand, he simply taught himself to paint with his left. She pointed to a flawless pastoral painting of trees hanging in his Lutz Wing room, to show how adept he had become.
"He came from the generation that didn’t complain. They just did what had to be done," she noted. "It’s the spirit that built America, isn’t it? It’s the pioneer spirit."
In 2005, Hilgers admitted himself to the same nursing home where he had been volunteering. At first, he would joke with the staff and take daily walks, but those days are gone, Jack said. Hilgers’ mobility, vision, hearing and short-term memory have diminished considerably over the last few years, as one would expect for a man born the same year William H. Taft was inaugurated as the 27th president of the United States.
These days, he said, his dad can’t always remember what he had for breakfast, but he can recite the Hail Mary in German (his father’s native language) − a flash of his former brilliance.
When asked what he is most proud of in his life, Hilgers remarks, without hesitation, "My family." And while his memory may have paled, it is clear, from the joy on the faces of his family on the day of his 105th birthday that he will always be remembered.
"Every year for the past few years, I’ve been telling my wife, "‘this’ll be the last time we make the trip for dad’s birthday,’ but here we are," Jack said. "I’m thinking we should start planning his 106th."
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