Going strong: Bernice Seblonka celebrates 100 years of living

MARQUETTE – Bernice Seblonka said spelling and arithmetic were her best subjects in school and that she didn’t so well at reciting.

But after hearing Bernice perfectly recite both the Gettysburg Address and the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution at her 100th birthday party Tuesday, other guests at that celebration thought she must have done pretty well in that subject, too.

“I’m lucky to be 100 and have my main floor,” she said, pointing to her head. “That’s what my husband called it.”

Seblonka, who was born in Crown Point, Ind., July 5, 1913, had a special birthday party with her friends at Marquette Adult Day Services at Messiah Lutheran Church in Marquette, sharing a delicious chocolate cake brought in for the occasion by her son, Peter.

Bernice was not in Marquette for her actual birthday as she divides her time staying with Peter and his siblings George, who lives in Ohio, and Mary, who resides in the Chicago area.

It was in the Chicago area that Bernice spent most of her life. Her parents, George and Katherine (Beike) Biegel, moved from Indiana to Illinois when Bernice was in the sixth grade. Bernice was the ninth of 10 children.

“I had four older sisters and five brothers,” she said.

Her father moved to Chicago after working in the Indiana steel mills. His new job in the Chicago Park District office was one he enjoyed.

“My dad did security for the Dempsey-Tunney fight,” Bernice recalled. “My brother Pete wanted to help at that one, but he wasn’t able to.”

The move to Illinois put Bernice in what she recalls as “a very good school.”

“I was Wadsworth Grammar School at the corner of 64th and University,” she said. “I liked going there.”

Bernice wanted to pursue a career in nursing, but took another path.

“After grammar school, I was sent to a commercial school to learn shorthand and typing,” she said. She went to high school for two years, then left to get a job, eventually at Sears-Roebuck.

Bernice had one particular objective in mind when she began bringing in a salary.

“I wanted a car,” she said. “I saved up. I wore my stockings until they were full of runs and awful. Then I borrowed $200 from my sister and paid her $20 a month and bought my car. It was a 1928 model. I had a car and nobody else in my family did. It was a wonderful car.”

That vehicle factored in to a very important evening in her life.

“I was at a dance and this other girl had backed me into a wall,” Bernice said. “I was asking her if she wanted to step on my toes next when I noticed this young man behind her, smoothing his hair. He asked me dance and we did. Then he asked me to dance again and we did. Then he asked if I wanted to go to the drugstore for a pop and then he’d walk me home.

“I didn’t want to admit I had a car, so I had to figure out what to do,” she said.

The couple sipped on sodas and talked.

“Then I finally told him I had to show him something,” Bernice said. “I walked him down to where my car was and he rode back with me to my mother’s house and walked me to the stoop. He asked me if he could call on me again and he did.”

He was James Seblonka and within a couple of months of meeting, he and Bernice married, on May 10, 1941.

“We were together until he passed away a few years ago,” she said. “He died of lung cancer.”

James was an engineer for Conrail. He and Bernice had five children. Their daughter Judy died at 16 months and their son Jimmy died a few years ago, Bernice said.

“A parent should never have to bury a child,” she said. “That’s the worst thing a person can go through.”

Bernice said she enjoys talking with her 14 grandchildren. “Seven of each,” she said with a smile.

“I think lots of times about how lucky I am,” she said.

While she’s in Marquette, her son Peter often takes Bernice to the YMCA.

“The Y? I love it,” she said. “They have everything there. I learned about the Y when I was in Chicago. It was a great place to bring the kids. They learned lots there.”

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.