Julia Kabance gets bored pretty quick when answering questions about how old she is. There is irony in that, of course, because while meeting someone more than 100 years old is rare for most of us, how long she’s been alive is nothing new to her.
The ironies of life are always good for a laugh for this 108-year-old, who has been staying at Good Samaritan Society – Valley Vista in Wamego, Kansas, since suffering from a leg wound that warranted moving from her home in nearby St. Marys in February.
It’s not so much a youthful laugh you hear from this World War II veteran, the oldest living member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, as it is a timeless one. It doesn’t come attached to an age, you decide after you hear it a few times. It comes attached to a soul.
“People were always nice to me after I hit the century mark,” Kabance explained to a visitor. “It would be, ‘We have someone here who is 100 years old!’ And they’d come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you have no wrinkles and you have your teeth! And you’re walking!’ ”
There is a duty-bound politeness about her with the staff and visitors at Valley Vista, but she does her best to avoid the vanity that can come when asked to talk about herself. The answers to the inevitable questions come willingly, but she likes to broaden their scope.
“They ask, ‘How old are you now?’ ” she said. “And when I tell them now, they act like I hit them with something. I tell them if you eat the right kind of food and you do the right kind of exercises, you might live to be that old, too.”
Kabance wants to hit 112
Hers is a history very few can speak to. It’s about being a young girl growing up on the reservation while World War I was going on; it is about becoming part of the effort to win World War II; and it is about spending a good, long while on this planet making herself useful.
And when the age questions persist?
“During an interview, I told people I wanted to get to 112,” Kabance said, answering the question as a distance runner or a pole vaulter might. “There were two women at the time who were 114 — one in New York and one in Italy — they were both 114. Then they both died about the same time, only six months apart. I said, ‘I don’t think I can make 114 or 116, but maybe I can make 112.’ ”
Kabance arrived at Valley Vista with a leg wound that was affecting her mobility. Her nephew Galen Kabance of Pittsburg, Kansas, a retired teacher, shopped around for a place for her in the area where she could convalesce. He eventually found it at Valley Vista, where a Veterans Administration nursing home contract would cover her care.
It got around quickly that the Good Samaritan Society staff had a celebrity in its midst.
“They were doing a little bit different treatment (of the wound), with home health and only coming in a few times a week,” said Tamira Burdett, a nurse at Valley Vista who regularly treated Kabance. “I think that’s why it wasn’t healing very well. So when we started looking at it every day and doing it a little bit different than what they had been doing before, it healed up rather quickly, actually.”
There was nothing unique about the way the Valley Vista staff approached Kabance’s healing apart from the fact they were treating someone who was alive when William Howard Taft, our 27th president, was in the White House.
“She’s such a sweet lady,” Burdett said. “It’s always nice working with someone who’s elderly, but she has experience beyond anything that anyone I’ve ever met does.”
Kabance’s willingness to share events of her past gives staff members the opportunity to get a feel for what life has been like for one of the nation’s oldest Native American military veterans.
“I’ve spent some time with her and found her to be an absolutely delightful person,” said Laura Owens, the director of social services at Valley Vista. “She’s just an amazing woman.”
Kabance was the youngest of 12 children born to Frank and Mary Kabance, who ranched and farmed on the reservation. Though her mother could not read, she valued education, donating two acres of land for a schoolhouse for the children in the area.
Kabance went to high school in Holton, Kansas, and Haskell University (now Haskell Indian Nations University). She also spent a semester at the University of Kansas before the money ran out.
“In those days, for someone to go to high school was almost impossible,” Kabance said. “People didn’t have enough money to pay room and board for their children.”
She joined the U.S. Army on March 17, 1943, at age 33, becoming part of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. She remained in the Army until 1946, serving as a clerical worker, primarily in Tacoma, Washington.
After leaving the service, she went back to Kansas to take care of her mother, who died four years later. She returned to work shortly thereafter, working for the Air Force in Topeka. From there, she worked in accounting, first for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington state, and then on the East Coast, then back to the Northwest. She retired in 1972 while living in Fort Lewis, Washington.
Kabance eventually moved to St. Marys, living within a short drive of where she grew up. Always active as a volunteer, she began devoting more time to it as a retiree with trips to Colmery-O’Neil VA Medical Center in Topeka.
Giving to others
She was a popular volunteer in Topeka, helping with physical therapy patients and whatever else was needed. Her work with veterans, often sobering in revealing the ravages of battle, became a career in itself as the years progressed.
“A doctor told me that I should have been a nurse because I knew how to talk to people,” Kabance said. “I wondered what it was going to be like helping a young man, so much younger than you, who couldn’t help himself. At first I thought, ‘Will I be able to take this?’ And then I thought, ‘Well, you’re doing it for the love of God, that’s who you’re doing this for.’ It’s not for pride, not for publicity.”
At the request of her visitors, she took out her scrapbooks from a drawer in her room. There were pictures of family members, long-gone friends she’d known in the Army and photographs of events that helped shape her life.
There was even a tintype photo of her mother and father taken when the pair was quite young. Apart from the sheer age of the tintype, it was impossible not to notice the outfits the couple wore for the photograph. They were spectacular.
“Look at my mother, she has all kinds of beads,” Kabance said when she came to the tintype page. “For occasions, they dressed up. And look at the hat that my dad had on!”
Her earliest memories bring to light a spirit of independence that still burns.
She didn’t speak until she was 3 years old — possibly, she says, because both English and the Potawatomi Native dialect were spoken in the home.
Kabance associates a pair of events with her decision to talk, perhaps with one getting her halfway there and the other pushing her over the top.
First, the family car — the Kabances were among the first in the area to own one — backfired and scared her to death. “I wanted to jump out,” she remembers. And about that same time, there was the highchair incident.
“They would bring me food that I didn’t like and some things that I did like,” she said. “A lot of things I didn’t like, so I threw the whole business on the floor. So then I got yanked out of the highchair and taken away from the table.”
Her dad suggested to her mother that they start asking her what food she wants.
“That was the end of the tension,” Kabance said. “That’s when I started to talk. People were amazed that such a small child could use the dialect. It isn’t that way now.”
A star is born
Kabance has been a featured part of several celebrations over the years, both for her military service and her Potawatomi heritage.
Roy Hale, a friend and a veteran of the Korean War, went looking for Native American veterans in the area as part of his work in coordinating the creation of We-Ta-Se American Legion Post 410, which also serves as a museum of Native Americans’ contributions to military service. There are military photos of Kabance standing straight and tall in uniform, along with fellow Women’s Army Corps recruits.
Hale, a gifted storyteller with his own long history in the area, found Kabance’s name at the courthouse and contacted her, telling her he wanted her to become a lifetime member of their American Legion.
“One time when she was 104, I called her up and I said, ‘Julia, I’m going to come get you, we’re going to have a party at the powwow in your honor,’ ” Hale said, laughing. “And then she said, ‘No, I’ll drive. I just bought a new car.’ She’s going to be 109 in August.”
On the move
Kabance doesn’t drive anymore, though she often remains a step ahead of the crowd. Or in this case, a step ahead of the staff at Valley Vista.
“She’s got her schedule that she likes to keep,” said Justin Williams, a Valley Vista administrator. “We’ll tell her, ‘We’re having this down the hall’ and ‘Would you like to attend?’ And sometimes she’ll say, ‘Yup,’ and grab her walker and off she’ll go. And if you’re not careful, she’ll take off and she’ll leave you in the dust. She’s very mobile, especially after we healed up that wound.”
On a recent morning, she made a point to stop and talk with Kim Roudybush, a Valley Vista transportation director who Kabance calls “The Flower Doctor.”
Roudybush had enlivened the flowers the folks at the Legion had recently given Kabance. At that moment the flowers were sitting near the transportation director’s desk by the window.
“I told Kim when I leave this world I’ll leave her my set of dishes that I got when I bought my first house,” Kabance said. “It was a present for me when I became the first woman in the family to buy her own home. I told her she gets my dishes. They were made in Japan, and they were the last shipment at the time.”
Kabance executed a comedic pause at that point, then glanced up toward the visitors.
“So she’s waiting for those dishes,” she said.
On the way to Jericho
In a perfect world, Kabance would be back at her home tending to the lawn, her shrubs and her flowers. And she would love to get back to the VA facility in Topeka, too, where she could help folks with physical therapy.
Like that memorable laugh that comes straight from the heart of a life well-lived, you realize after a few hours in her company that there was never a day where Kabance woke up and told herself it was time to slow down.
It is why getting back to the garden and the shrubs seems like the logical thing to do, even at 108, and why helping people remains a good retirement plan.
During a conversation about her Catholic faith and her commitment to service, Kabance reminded her visitors of the story of the man on his way to Jericho who was robbed and beaten half to death.
“They left him there for dead,” Kabance said. “And the Jewish priest came along and he wouldn’t look at him. The [Levite] came along and they didn’t stop to help, and then the Good Samaritan came along and was moved to compassion. He helped him.”
It is a gospel parable that works well for Good Samaritan Society staff members caring for Kabance, who they didn’t know until a few months ago. It is on target, too, as a motivator for Kabance, who has built a life filled with touching souls.
“What do I value most about my military service?” she repeated after hearing the question. “I’d say I got to meet all different kinds of people from different parts of the country. I got to experience comradeship. You saw it during the war, and I saw it during the war in a small way. That’s one of the best lessons I learned — the closeness. How do you deal with a close situation? There was no discrimination. We were all friends.”
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