Two Shawnee residents recently celebrated their 100-year-old birthdays together at their parish, St. Joseph Catholic Church. While Margarita Stetson and Ben Nicks share a common birth year — they were actually born just a few days apart from each other back in 1919 — their life experiences have been quite different.
‘I haven’t had an easy life’
“I never did know anybody 100 years old before,” Stetson said. “It slipped up on me. I never thought I could ever be 100 years old. It’s like a dream.”
A lot can happen in a century, but Stetson diligently kept track of her life history in a diary.
Born March 23, 1919, near Wathena, Kansas, Margarita Alvarez spent her childhood in Chicago before her family moved back to live on a farm in Wathena.
When she was 13, her mother died, and because her father was crippled from a work injury, she quit school at age 13 and stayed home to raise her brothers and sisters (she was the second-oldest of six children). She completed her eighth-grade education and at age 15, she taught herself to drive with an old Model T Ford on an alfalfa field.
“I haven’t had an easy life,” she said. “I worked; I was fast, and I was clean.”
She found work at an auto shop, factories and bakeries to make ends meet. Her family moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, where she met a “quiet little farmer boy,” a neighbor named Russell Stetson. Eventually, they ran off to get married, even though her father disapproved.
“My dad didn’t allow me to have a boyfriend; he didn’t ever want me to get married,” she said. “He wanted me to stay with him because he was crippled, but I couldn’t see that. He tried to chase him off, but he kept coming back every evening and see me on the farm.
“I can’t remember him ever asking me to marry him or anything. We just took it for granted we were going to get married.”
The couple married on April 17, 1941, and moved to Savannah, Missouri, before eventually settling in Shawnee and joining St. Joseph Catholic Church. Her husband served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. They never had children. Cancer took his life in 2002.
“I always called him hubby; he was the romantic one,” she said.
Outside of her circles of family, church and work, nothing else really interested her. She loved to dance, sing, play the organ for her husband and get involved in her parish. She thinks people should keep to their own business and not meddle in anyone’s affairs.
“Live your own life,” she said. “Just do what you’d like to do and can do, and don’t worry about what other people think. You can’t please everybody.”
Over the past 100 years, Stetson has collected many decorations, dolls and glass figurines. One painting hung upon a wall features bull fighting, a tribute to her family’s Mexican heritage.
Although she never got to go to college, she enjoyed traveling across the country with her husband. They also went sightseeing in Italy, Israel and Canada.
“It was good for me; I was born poor and didn’t get to go like other people went,” she said. “People went to college and big jobs — they were more educated and got ahead farther than I ever did — and I was a plain-old factory worker. Just an ordinary, old person. The most exciting thing was the travel that we did.”
In her long life, she has no regrets.
“God’s been good to me,” she said. “I tell him every day please take me home. He’s not ready for me. What he might have for me, I don’t know, but I’m here. Whatever will be will be.”
Ben Nicks, World War II veteran and lifelong Trans World Airlines employee
As a centenarian, Ben Nicks has only one bit of advice: “You do the best you can and meet the problems as they come along as best you can.”
Nicks solved problems as a pilot in World War II, as a lifelong employee of Trans World Airlines, and as a father of seven children who grieved the loss of a son killed in combat.
Born on March 31, 1919, as Benjamin Arnold Nicks Jr. in Chicago, he spent almost his entire childhood in the Armourdale neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas. When he was 10, his family moved to Monrovia, which eventually became a part of Shawnee.
He graduated from St. Joseph High School and earned an English degree from what is now known as Benedictine College in 1940 in Atchison, Kansas. Nicks met his wife, June Trembley, while he was training as a soldier at Randolph Field in San Antonio during World War II. They got married on April 10, 1942. He often called her “Daisy June.”
Nicks had planned to stay in the military for one year when he enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces in January 1941, but after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor that December, he ended up staying another four years.
He was commissioned as a pilot and flew many bombing and mining missions over the Japanese mainland. From January 1945 to literally the end of the war, he was stationed on the Pacific island of Tinian; he was charged with flying a Boeing B-29 Superfortress to drop incendiary bombs and mines over the Japanese harbors and civilian territory.
“Most of our attacks weren’t against the military at all; they were against the shipping, the manufacturing, the cities,” he said. “All of our missions were against civilians.”
Those 35 missions caused controversy, he said. His last mission — an attack on Rajin in what is now North Korea — was flown at the same time as the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
“‘A big bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It’s going to win the war,’” he said a newscaster kept saying over the radio. “We must have passed within 50 miles, maybe closer, to Hiroshima on that same mission that they dropped the atom bomb.”
The attack on Hiroshima killed more than 70,000 people — but Nicks believes the frequent incendiary attacks were deadlier.
“I am of the opinion that World War II was the last war that the United States should have been involved in,” he said, adding that his son, Benjamin Nicks Jr., was killed in action during the Vietnam War in 1970. “We didn’t belong in Vietnam, we didn’t belong in Korea, we certainly don’t belong in the Middle East but we’re over there. We’ve put in a lot more military time than we really should have.”
After the war, Ben and June Nicks eventually had seven children – two boys and five girls. Nicks went to work for Trans World Airlines in ticketing and eventually in public relations. His first post-war job was as a ticket agent in the Muehlebach Hotel in downtown Kansas City.
Traveling with TWA
Nicks then became the editor of TWA’s employee newspaper and worked at the downtown Kansas City airport for six years before joining the public relations department. He became good friends with J.D. “Socks” Bowersock, a journalist with The Kansas City Times, and even traveled a bit with him when they covered the mid-air collision of the TWA and United Airlines airplanes over the Grand Canyon in 1956 (he has a fond memory of Bowersock dropping his dentures in a toilet near Flagstaff, Arizona).
“You know what my big job with them was? Drinking with the reporters,” he said. “If you and a reporter were together anywhere near a bar, boy you always went in. I bought the drink, not the reporter. Especially if there were two or three of them in a party, I would be expected to drink with them and I wasn’t much of a drinker then, still ain’t.”
His work took him all over the world. He even spent a year working in New York City. He spent 36 years with TWA, his last job being a facilities manager for the training department, before retiring in 1981.
Nicks and his family also enjoyed traveling across the country — he’s visited every state except North Dakota and Oregon — and through most of western and southern Europe. He befriended TWA employees in Europe, including a Scottsman and World War II veteran and a French Jewish woman who lived in Algeria, escaping persecution in Nazi-occupied Germany.
Ben and June Nicks enjoyed their 50th wedding anniversary and 64 years of marriage before she died in 2005.
For him, the biggest change in society from when he was growing up is that “women have moved out of the home.” Women work, drive cars and depend less on finding a husband. He encouraged his daughters to go to college and find work.
“If I’m going to be proud about something, that’s one thing I am proud about,” he said. “Every one of my kids got a college education. That isn’t something you say everywhere.”