Lillian Schilling ran the Bolder Boulder at the age of 90.
She lost both her big toenails in that race, due to what she describes as a poor choice in tennis shoes. But Lillian Schilling made it to the 10k finish line with the best time for her age group.
When a person lives through the Dust Bowl, Great Depression and survives on a homestead surrounded by barren land in southeastern Colorado, losing a few toenails isn’t much by comparison.
Throughout her 99 years, Lillian Schilling has endured. She’s gone on to become a world traveler, mother of three, Longmont business owner, OUR Center volunteer, senior Olympics gold medal winner in shuffleboard in Mesa, Ariz., life-long dancer, grandma, great-grandma and “pretty good” seamstress.
With her 100th birthday approaching June 4, Lillian Schilling has been counting up her birthday cards (10 as of Tuesday before the mail arrived) and reflecting on the life she’s lived and wisdom she has to share.
Lillian Schilling was raised on a 160-acre homestead in an unincorporated community called Ninaview, about 40 miles south of Las Animas. She was born in 1922 to Seward and Martha Schilling and was the third of five children. Her siblings were: Verdon, Margaret, June and Seward Louis Junior.
“My aunt came to Colorado first,” she said. “She told my dad it was a wonderful place with lots of grass for cows. My dad wanted to a be farmer.”
Captured by the allure of free homestead land and the possibility to farm, Seward, a barber from St. Louis, decided to take his chances and moved to Colorado’s southeast side.
From a stack of photos and newspaper clippings on her kitchen table Tuesday, Lillian Schilling and her son Jim Schilling shared a picture from 20 years ago showing a wooden structure in disrepair, the place she once called home.
“If you look, this is the worst possible dirt in Colorado,” Jim Schilling said. “There’s no water there. It never rains. It’s rocks and dirt.”
Spread out across the dusty terrain were roughly 15 other homes. A post office, general store and one room school house were the only other buildings.
“We all were poor,” Lillian Schilling said. But, she added, no one seemed to think they were different from anybody else.
For entertainment, families at night would host dances out of their homes. Schilling’s dad joined in the revelry as a violin and banjo player. A child could start dancing when they were 6 or 7, Schilling said. Those who were younger slept in the other rooms, covered with guest’s coats.
With no luck in farming, Lillian Schilling’s dad traveled 40 miles to the south to cut down cedar trees and turn them into fence post to sell in Los Animas.
Life during the Dust Bowl
Lillian Schilling and her family lived on the homestead during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. In that eight-year period of drought, dust storms descended on Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, New Mexico and southeastern Colorado.
“In the morning when you woke up, the only spot on your pillow where there was white was where your head had been,” Lillian Schilling said.
Her mother would sweep the dust from the house with a broom each day. Outside, dust sediment and tumbleweeds would collect in mounds at pasture fences, piling up so high that cows could climb from one side to the other.
“We finally realized we couldn’t live there any longer,” she said.
The family moved to Gulnare, near Trinidad when she was 13. Lillian Schilling rode the bus to high school in Aguilar, where she graduated with a full-ride scholarship to Denver University. But, she said her dad didn’t want her to go to college.
“He said, ‘Oh, you will just get married,’” she said.
From factory worker to business owner
Lillian Schilling instead moved to Denver, not to go to school, but to be part of a workforce vocational training program for young people, called the National Youth Association. She got a job at the general hospital for $1.15 an hour. At the time, the rubber gloves worn by medical professionals were washed and reused. Schilling’s job was to flip the clean gloves so that they were right side out and could be used again.
When asked how long she did that for, she said, “Not any longer than I had to.”
From there, she went to work at Remington Arms, a munitions factory that existed during World War II. Schilling worked quality control on ammunition, pulling anything off the line that was bent or unusable. She made $4 an hour. Rent for her Denver apartment, which she shared with a friend, was $15 a month.
Dancing has been a big part of Lillian Schilling’s life.
“You made a lot of friends through dancing and you’ve gone a lot of places through jazz festivals and dance festivals,” Jim Schilling said to his mom.
She met her husband, Bill, at a USO dance when she was 24. USO dances, at that time, were a popular way for World War II soldiers to socialize and rehabilitate to life after war. The dances held the promise of pretty girls and maybe some unsanctioned booze, Jim Schilling explained.
Bill and Lillian Schilling married and eventually settled in Hygiene. They had three children: John, Jim and Judy. Bill Schilling worked for the Federal Aviation Administration in Longmont. The family moved to Longmont in 1971.
Lillian Schilling led clubs in hiking, bridge and dancing and eventually became a real estate agent in the 80s. Before that, she joined forces in the mid-70s with two other women to open a teacher supply store called, The Knowledge Nook at Ninth Avenue and Main Street.
“She never, until recently, stood still,” Jim Schilling said, adding later. “You’re making me look bad, mom.”
After Bill Schilling retired from his job at the FAA, Schilling said the couple planned to travel, but he died in 1988 before they got the chance.
A collage of photographs and newspaper articles on the wall pays tribute to Schilling’s family history and adventures in her 99 years.
When it comes to wisdom to live by, Lillian Schilling offered: “Make the best of your neighbor instead of the worst,” she said. “Be sincere. And, most of all, have fun.”
Boulder Daily Camera
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