by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan — Throw out your diet books. Willie Hall eats grits and sausage for breakfast every morning.
And he just celebrated his 100th birthday.
Hall is no stranger to junk food either.
“I like junk food,” he said. “My favorite is salami, cheese and crackers.”
A parishioner of Our Lady & St. Rose in Kansas City, Kansas, Hall attributes his longevity not to diet, but to the precepts of his Catholic faith.
“All I can say is I treated everybody right,” he said. “So that must be the way to longevity.
“If you be good to yourself and be good to everybody else, I think God seems to help you get along.”
A convert, Hall gives his wife Gloria credit for introducing him to Catholicism.
The couple has been married for almost 80 years, and Gloria is still living, too — though it will be a few more years before she celebrates her 100th birthday.
Hall’s recipe for a happy marriage is as simple as his recipe for a long life: “It’s just always doing what your wife says.”
‘Adventure and love’
Hall grew up in Zimmerman, Louisiana, one of six children.
“It was a sawmill town,” he said. “And the town was so small everybody quit at the same time and went to lunch.”
Inquisitive by nature, as a young man Hall thought about stowing away on a ship headed for Europe.
But he hopped a freight train and went on a hobo adventure instead.
“Back then, people were poor,” he explained. “That was one way of transportation — hitch a freight train and go.”
The group was headed to California. But when Hall heard harrowing tales of hobos overcome by exhaust fumes suffocating in tunnels, he decided to get off in Kansas City.
“Everybody knew about Kansas City because of the stockyards and the packing houses,” he said.
Kansas City was also known for its jazz and swing music — and Hall arrived during the peak of the big band era.
“When the big bands came to town,” he recalled, “people would go to the [Municipal] Auditorium and dance.
“That’s where I met her.”
Hall and Gloria Thompson began their relationship as the country entered World War II.
“I hadn’t planned on getting married because I was quite young at the time,” he said. “But I was going into the military.
“Her mother and father talked it over and said I might not come back.
“So they agreed to let us get married.”
Hall did come back and, to this day, he can tell you exactly how long he served: “three years, six months and seventeen days.”
He battled in New Guinea and the southern Philippines. He earned the American Defense Service Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with one bronze star, the WWII Victory Medal and the Good Conduct Medal.
His total pay was $300.
Life and leisure
The couple raised their three children — Hazel, Herbie and Marie — in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, which eventually consolidated with St. Rose of Lima Parish to become Our Lady & St. Rose.
“We grew up in the Catholic elementary school system,” said Hazel. “When we were little kids, we lived on 8th Street; then we moved to 10th and Quindaro.”
Hall supported his family working in sales with the Seller Marquis Roofing Company.
But even after retiring from that profession, he continued working in machine maintenance at New Century and then for the Marriott Hotel.
He finally accepted a life of leisure at the age of 83.
But he never retired his mind.
“I read a lot,” he said. “Some books I read two or three times because I get something different out of them [each time].”
“He knows what’s going on,” said his daughter-in-law Paulette Hall. “He loves to talk about everything that’s happening in the world.”
Indeed, this centenarian believes in staying current and avidly keeps track of the latest news in sports and politics.
“I don’t go back over the older times,” he said. “Any hour of the day, some news is on that I manage to go find and keep up with what’s going on today.”
The one exception is when he visits his wife who is now in a nursing home.
“The things happening today are kind of hard for her to understand,” said Hall, “so we talk about past things.”
Change and the future
When he does reflect on the past, Hall says the biggest changes he’s seen don’t involve technology, but people.
“A lot of things have happened on my road to 100 years,” he said. “But the biggest change is I think people today are crazier than they used to be.”
“Very few young people plan things,” he continued. “They just do it. And they don’t have mercy about hurting others.”
“I don’t think I have the knowledge to say how things should be,” he’s quick to add. “But I think people just have to get together.”
“It’s like a sports team,” he said. “I don’t care how good or smart they are. If they’re not together, they’re not going to get anything done.”
How much of that pulling together does Hall expect to live to see?
The question doesn’t really concern him.
“I didn’t have any idea that I would live this long,” he said. “But I never was afraid of dying — whether I die laying down or sitting up in a chair, that doesn’t worry me.
“Anybody that has died has never come back to tell anyone what is beyond the grave. I don’t know either.
“It’s like when Columbus came to America, he didn’t know where he was going, but it turned out OK.
“I just believe the Lord takes care of everybody.”