Halene White is no stranger to work. She has worked for most of her 96 years.
By RIMSIE McCONIGA
Halene White is no stranger to work. She has worked for most of her 96 years.
From the time she was a young girl growing up in DeSoto, Missouri, during the Depression, she and her three older brothers were filling orders at her dad’s grocery store, Bay’s Market, to deliver to local homes. Long before self-serve grocery businesses, the family worked hard as a team to make their store a success.
“I was blessed with a wonderful family,” says Halene.
While in high school, she spent her summers working at the International Show Company office.
When she graduated from DeSoto High School, World War II had begun and Halene relocated to St. Louis to work for the Civil Service.
After Halene married William Abbott and the war ended, the couple lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where their three children were born, Leslie, Linda and Randy.
Later they bought the butane and propane gas company in Lawton, Oklahoma, and she multi-tasked by selling gas all day and doing accounting at night. She waited on customers and even paid visits to all of the local farmers to develop the business. They sold the business after her husband developed cancer.
William had played football in college and had been recruited by the Chicago Bears, but when World War II began, he played for the Army football team. In college, he had been an excellent swimmer and competed against Johnny Weissmuller for a spot in the Olympic Games, but Weissmuller defeated him by a few seconds and went on to “Tarzan” fame.
“After my husband died, I struggled to support three children and even rented out our upstairs to two nice Army lieutenants to earn extra money,” says Halene. “I worked several secretarial jobs in Lawton. Then I met and married Marlow White and we began selling uniforms on the road at the officers’ clubs coast to coast and also Puerto Rico and Hawaii.”
When she met Marlow, he was struggling from the aftermath of a fire that destroyed his uniform store in Florida. They began a 20-year odyssey of traveling throughout the U.S. in a van and selling their wares. When they had saved enough money, they decided to open their first store in the Fort Leavenworth Post Exchange. When they eventually moved to 400 Seneca St. in downtown Leavenworth, little did they know that the business, Marlow White Uniforms, would become a local icon after decades of faithfully serving the military and the community.
Halene says moving to Leavenworth has been a great part of her life. She says it was hard work, but fun, and it gave her and Marlow the opportunity to meet some very interesting people. Halene never wants to retire. She has worked at the business until about six months ago due to diabetes and heart problems. She is on oxygen 24 hours a day. But she is determined to return to work as the weather warms up.
“I really miss seeing everyone,” says Halene,” “I continue to do some work at home for Marlow White which keeps me busy. I am so proud of the way Marlow White’s president, Kevin Harrington, and CEO Tim Cahill have made the business the success it is today. They are both West Point graduates.”
One of her favorite memories at Marlow White was having the honor of measuring the first class of women cadets to graduate from West Point.
“It was always fun going there,” says Halene.
Halene’s granddaughter, Marlena Kaeding, lives with her and helps with tasks such as grocery shopping.
“I still do my own cooking, but my daughter and son-in-law fix me delicious meals also,” says Halene.
Her favorite foods include healthy choices such as vegetables, beans, fruit, mac and cheese but very little meat.
“I’ve always been very active and a hard worker,” she said. “Currently I do the exercises the nurse told me to do and I have an exercise bike which I should use more than I do.”
A nurse drops in once a week to check on her, but Halene remains independent and determined to continue to do the things she enjoys.
“I love reading books, especially biographies. I love to see how people faced challenges and made it through all their years. I’m reading a variety of books now. Also my love of dogs keeps my days very happy and busy. They are so much companionship. My love of dogs started when I was 2 years of age. My dad, Albert Bay, came home from St. Louis and came to me with this tiny puppy in his coat pocket. He was a precious fox terrier I named Tincy and he lived for 15 years. I have loved and raised many dogs and currently have three, Coco, Chloe and Sugar. My dogs are so much company and love for me.”
When Halene reflects on her life, she says there are more happy memories than she can count. High on her best memories list is raising her three children. “My mom is amazing,” says Halene’s daughter, Linda Abbott Sutton. “I remember she always prepared a full, hot breakfast for our family of five every morning and a delicious family dinner every night. During the day she worked at the business. She also sewed my dresses, ironed all our clothes and kept a beautiful clean house. How she did all this still mystifies me. She was always strong, confident, hard working and so beautiful in her cute pencil skirts and blouses and heels. She gave us all lots of love and prayed with me every night. She also brought home lots of adorable stray doggies that people dropped off at the gas business. We loved them to pieces. My mom has always loved dogs.”
Halene also cherishes her travels with Marlow.
“I always wanted to travel and Marlow and I traveled all the time,” she said. “I loved our trips to Europe, South America, Spain, Greece and of course, the United States. We visited Marlow’s relatives in Santiago, Chile, and I loved seeing the beautiful Andes Mountains. We went to Greece and also took a scary bus ride to Croatia to visit the birthplace of Marlow’s great-grandfather.”
Linda admires her mom in many ways.
“I really admire my mom’s faith, positive attitude, work ethic, wisdom and sage advice,” she said. “She’s always been my best friend and mentor, helping me mostly by her courageous example. I couldn’t ask for a more wonderful mother. Everyday with her now is especially precious. My mom has endured a lot of very difficult times, financial, health problems, the loss of both husbands and two sons. And yet, she inspires me everyday with her love of life, love of her family and love for her sweet doggies. I’m so proud to be her daughter.”
Halene is also treasured by the staff at Marlow White’s, who recently made her a quilt. Each staff member contributed to the design and construction.
“I will treasure it always,” she said.
When she was selected as the grand marshall of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2017, which also happened to be her 95th birthday, Marlow White’s staff also designed a special gold bullion badge of the seal of Leavenworth for her to wear on her banner.
Marlow White president Kevin Harrington says working with, and sharing an office with Halene is inspiring. He loves hearing her stories about her years with Marlow on the road and the passion she has for the business.
“She still has friendships and relationships with customers she met 30 years ago,” he said. “We still build off the values that she and Marlow established. We follow in the footsteps of Halene and Marlow. She has celebrity status. The soldiers roll into town and have heard of her and at local events stand in line to have pictures taken with her.”
This nonagenarian dynamo still drives and renewed her license in March. And as Halene points out, it will be good until 2022, when she turns 100.
Halene says that it’s a given that along with living a long life there has to be worry, sadness and grief. But she also believes that how we handle adversity will make us stronger.
“Be happy, think happy thoughts, love being with people,” says Halene. “Pray everyday with great faith in God. I believe having faith and positive thinking and working makes for a good, long life.
“Never get finished – always have something to do tomorrow.”
While most of her relatives have lived into their 80s — her grandmother lived to 92 and her brother Bill Bay lived to 98 — Halene says she has no secret to living a long life.
“Life is so amazing. You take just one day at a time,” she said. “We grow up, marry, work hard and slowly grow older. I feel if people eat right, exercise and really take care of themselves, they will enjoy the long life God has given them. Remember, this is the day the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad. I like to start each day with a prayer and ask Jesus to help me through the day and I thank him for another day he has given me.”