Much has changed in Le Center over the last century. Helen Berger knows that better than almost anyone.
“Right now the thing that gets me most is this new technology,” Berger said. “It’s hard to believe the things that are going on right now, especially with these telephones taking pictures. We didn’t even have a camera years ago.”
One hundred years to be exact. Helen Knopf was born Feb. 24, 1916 and moved with her family to Le Center at age 5. She graduated from McKinley High School in 1934, and in 1938 married North Dakota native John Berger. The couple had four children, Joyce, Mary Jo, Carol and Bob, and worked together at Spors Wholesale House in Le Center for 25 years until it closed.
“Le Center is a wonderful place to raise a family,” Berger said. “It used to be so neighborly. I knew everybody in town.”
Having grown up during the Great Depression, the Bergers instilled the lifelong lesson of the value of a dollar in their children.
“We never felt poor, we always had what we needed,” daughter Carol Hanson said. “I got my first store-bought skirt when I was 13. My mother was a fabulous seamstress; she sewed all of our clothing.”
The Berger children always had a warm meal on the table as well. Though Berger downplayed her cooking abilities, Hanson said her mom’s skills in the kitchen had the kids running to the supper table.
“Bohemian hot dish was her specialty,” Hanson said. “It was homemade potato dumplings, pork roast and kraut made in the crock. It’s my favorite food in the world.”
After Spors closed, Berger took a job at Brinkmans, the company Spors was sold to, and later at Larsons, all wholesale stores located at the same building. John became a school janitor in Le Center, where he worked until his retirement in 1974. His wife followed him into retirement seven years later.
“We were retired, but I taught religion for all grades … one day a week,” Berger said. “My husband kept working part-time jobs, painting houses and other odd jobs.”
The two also played cards. A lot of cards, said Hanson.
“Dad and her played every single day for years and years. They had a little notebook where the kept track of who won, and every year they would start over,” Hanson said.
“Mom usually won.”
The Bergers were married for 64 years until John’s death in 2002. Many of former students he saw every day at work attended the funeral.
“They said so many wonderful things about him,” Berger said.
Always busy, Berger stayed active in the community after her husband’s death. It wasn’t until this January, shortly before her 100th birthday, that Berger moved into Ecumen Assisted Living Home in Le Center.
“She really knows the community, who folks are, who they’re related to,” Ecumen Housing Director Mandy Filter said.
Filter has worked at Ecumen for the last seven years, and said Berger was the first resident to turn 100 in that time. It wasn’t something she ever expected.
“My mother lived to be 98 and I thought that was really old to be,” Berger said. “I never dreamed that I would live this long.”
To celebrate, not one, but two birthday parties were thrown. The first was at Ecumen on her actual birthday Feb. 24, where residents and staff threw her a small party. The second, held Feb. 29 at the Le Center American Legion Post 108, was much larger.
Berger’s nephew Tim Kelly booked the Riverblenders Quartet as entertainment, and invited the entire community to come out for lunch celebrating her birthday. Berger knew about the party, but was surprised to see more than 200 people in attendance.
“I knew it was coming but I couldn’t believe all the people. It was just lines and lines,” Berger said. “It was such a good birthday party, I couldn’t get over it.”
Two weeks later she’s still receiving birthday cards in the mail.
Nowadays Berger has much more free time on her hands and is visited by her family almost every day at Ecumen. She doesn’t play as many card games as she used to, save for 3-13 rummy, which she plays daily against whoever is willing.
What’s the key to living 100 years? Berger doesn’t know, and hasn’t thought about it often. She says she is just blessed to live the life she has.
“I’ve had a very good life. I can’t complain one bit,” Berger said. “It seems like the good Lord gave me most everything I needed to live.”