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A Chat with a Centenarian

February 20, 2015

Margaret Balkman on living through 100 years

If you want to know the keys to a healthy, happy, long life, Margaret Balkman can tell you in three words: faith, family, and humor. She also notes that her zest for life has always been fueled by fostering creativity, doing good for others, loving children, and being physically active, as well. Looking upon her 100th birthday, she declares that she has absolutely nothing to complain about. “Well, unless you want me to start, I could think of a few things…” she chuckles. She feels honored to have experienced all these years.


Born February 20, 1915, in Chenequa, WI, there was no hopping in the car to head to the hospital – her father had to run down the street to the doctor’s house to let him know it was time. She was an only child, and she jokes it’s because her parents couldn’t handle the thought of any more kids if they would be like her. She admits she gave her parents and teachers a run for their money over the years – ever the jokester, the mischief-maker, and probably too outspoken for her own good. To this day, her friends call her “Trouble,” and rightfully so, she affirms. She credits her father with passing along his fantastic sense of humor.

Half Norwegian and half Swedish, Margaret explains that means she’s half stubborn and half stuck-up, but that’s not all; she’s surely full of love for children, dramatic arts, and music, as well. She left home at age 14 to go 100 miles away for college-prep school. She recalls that time period as an exhilarating span of her life. Being an only child, she made it her mission to shatter any image of being a “spoiled”. She lived in the dorms, opened up to learning about others, built relationships, and made memories to last a lifetime. She was blessed to have the opportunity to complete several years of school at Gale and St. Olaf Colleges and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and Dramatic Art, which paved the way for a fulfilling career. All of her professional experiences were spent with children. She taught kindergarten, coordinated a multi-county government-run daycare for migrants, and dabbled in social work.

At age 21, Margaret married her best friend whom she’d known since they were babies. She fondly remembers her wedding day as a shining highlight of her hundred years. She reflects on how she “really knew him, so [she] could just be [her]self.”

The newlyweds had planned to move to Milwaukee together, but things changed and they decided to stay in Margaret’s childhood home. Together, they cared for her aging folks and raised their own three children there. “Helping take care of my parents was the least I could do in return for all they did for me, plus it was a good experience for our children. We all learned a great deal sharing a home with three generations.” Eventually, her children grew up and her husband passed away, but Margaret stayed in that very childhood house until she was over 90 years old. “Chenequa is a wealthy area, a very nice area, but they let us stay because we were there first!”

God and her family were always number one to her, with much of her life dedicated to her three children who have grown into remarkable adults. She now boasts eight grandchildren
and 13 great-grandchildren, so she still has the privilege of spending time with children who she adores so much.

After retirement, Margaret filled her days with meaningful volunteer work in the Oconomowoc Hospital surgery waiting room – a job she enjoyed very much. Additionally, she became one of the earliest members of the local theater group, the Schoolhouse Players. She had appreciated the group’s performances throughout her years working in schools and always aspired to get involved. In her earlier years, though, as outspoken as she was in casual settings, she didn’t feel the best about herself and was petrified of being in front of a crowd. When she decided to pursue her dream of performing in dramatic arts, she took up lessons and overcame her fears. She remembers needing letters of recommendation to seek membership with the Schoolhouse Players, and was so proud when she was accepted to the group. She remains a member today, and cherishes the many friendships she still sustains. She sums up her involvement in the group as, “The most fun I ever had.” She adds, “There’s something about acting that allows you to forget who you are; you can be somebody else, and it’s so much fun.”

It wasn’t until she was 85, still living in her original childhood home, that Margaret decided to make a deal with a local restaurant-owner who had approached her and asked to purchase it. She wanted to build a new home, so that’s just what she did, and it sat on a plot of land in Orchard Circle in Oconomowoc. Eventually, at age 94, after a search for the perfect senior living community, she fell in love with the independent apartments at Three Pillars Senior Living Communities, moved in, and continues her legacy there today.

Looking back over her hundred years, she can’t get over how things have changed. “We live in a different world, completely. My dad used to take me to school in a wagon or a sleigh. We didn’t have automobiles, we didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have phones, let alone those things – cell phones that have a camera so you can see the face of who you’re talking to.” Today she faithfully carries a cell phone in case of emergency but admits she never in a million years thought that would be the case.

She favorably recalls the countless happy times in her life, with more highpoints than she could list. She declares only one regret: she wishes she had spent more time doing the things she loved with her husband while he was alive. She reminds us all that if there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, “You go do it!” You don’t want to run out of time and wish you had.

Margaret concludes, “I did a lot. I accomplished a lot. I didn’t accomplish some things. My faith in God, my sense of humor, and my enjoyment of people might just bring me through another year of this good life.”


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