Celebrating LW Centenarians—Phyllis Poper
This is one story in an occasional series profiling some of LW’s most long-lived residents, those who have reached the enviable age of 100 years or more. The series is running in connection with the Golden Age Foundation centenarian event on April 20, which will celebrate these milestones. In most cases, a family member or friend has written the stories.
by Jim Poper
special to the LW Weekly
Phyllis Levonne Lawton was born in Emporia, Kansas, on March 28, 1922. She had two older brothers and a younger sister, now living in Arkansas. When she turned 4 years old, the family moved south to Kiowa, near the Oklahoma border, where her father was postmaster. Kiowa is named for the Native American tribe, and there were Kiowa tribe members in town, though they lived and dressed like everyone else.
One year, the mayor asked the local Native American families to present a program about their heritage. Phyllis still recalls this event, saying it was a privilege to witness. The men wore deerskin pants and played on their grandparents’ tom-toms. The women wore deerskin dresses, well-worn moccasins and necklaces of seeds. They did a side-step in a circle around the center, and young boys wearing loin cloths performed a stomping dance in the center.
Phyllis also recalls when the rodeo came to Kiowa. Its female star Fox Hastings became Phyllis’ idol; she decided then and there that she wanted to be a cowgirl when she grew up, just like Fox Hastings. Phyllis still loves horses and rodeos.
After Phyllis’ junior year of high school, the Lawton family moved to a very small village. Their home there had no indoor plumbing. If you didn’t have a water well on your property, you had to carry water from the town well on the main street. Phyllis’ dad did that each week for their household.
Phyllis said that the move was a culture shock. There were only 14 students in her graduating class. She had always done well in school, but with her brothers away and no money left for her to POPER
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attend college, she took a job in a general merchandising store, where she learned to candle eggs and sell plug tobacco, yard goods, and fabric like calico and red flannel (for underwear).
She was rescued from smalltown life when a cousin offered her a job in a nearby town. Phyllis was to use a band saw to cut two-dimensional shadow designs at the Marlow Wood Cut Factory. Phyllis saved her money, and when a friend heading to California asked her to come along, she quickly said, “Yes!” Her aunt was living in California at the time, so she decided to visit her.
In California, Phyllis learned that Douglas Aircraft Company was hiring, so she applied and got a job. A co-worker there was looking for a roommate, and since the young women got along well, they rented an apartment together in Long Beach.
They were excited to be saving money by cooking their meals and riding the bus. They felt that they were financially getting ahead, and they decided to buy a car together—a 1926 Ford Coupe that had to be crank-started.
But when World War II ended, so did their jobs. Phyllis believes they were the first workers to receive unemployment benefits.
So, what should two young, unemployed women do? Travel, of course! Gas was cheap, so off they went on their journey east across the U.S.
They took their time seeing the beautiful countryside. (They could not hurry even if they wanted to, as the car only went 35 mph.) First, they visited Phyllis’s family in Kansas, and then her friend’s family in Massachusetts.
Phyllis didn’t get to formally attend to college, but she feels this trip across the country was a priceless educational experience. She said that they never felt like they were in danger; everyone they met was nice and helpful. They found that each state had something beautiful and special to offer them.
In Massachusetts, both women got jobs at an airline. Phyllis got a job making flight reservations, while her friend became a flight attendant.
Before they began their trip across the country, Phyllis had met her future husband, Richard, on a blind date. He was in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and they corresponded while he was in the service and she was on her trip. Their communication continued even while she was working back east. Later, Phyllis transferred to Dallas, Texas.
Richard was taking his mother to visit her family in Iowa, and he told Phyllis he wanted to stop in Dallas to visit her. After that trip, Richard completed his service and attended the School of Architecture at USC.
Back in California, Richard had made a decision. He called Phyllis in Dallas and proposed to her over the phone.
Caught off guard, she said, “I have to think about it,” then hung up. Minutes later, Richard called back and asked, “Did you think about it yet?” She immediately said, “Yes!” In 1940, they were married in Kansas at her parents’ home. Phyllis made her own wedding dress. Her travel friend, Richard’s mother and some of their friends came to the wedding. Their honeymoon was spent driving to Long Beach, where they started their new life together.
Richard and Phyllis raised three adorable children: Roy, Penny and Jim. Currently, Phyllis has three grandsons, one granddaughter and four greatgrandchildren. She also has three great-great-grandchildren, and last August, the Poper family welcomed another great-granddaughter. Their family is ecstatic with this latest addition.
During her married life, Phyllis was involved in many service organizations. She was the state president of the California Council of Women’s Architectural League. She volunteered at St. Mary’s Guild and was one of the first docents at Rancho Los Alamitos. She was past president of the LBCC Fine Arts Foundation, a certified member of the Los Altos United Methodist Church, and a member of the Naples Island Garden Club, among others.
Phyllis had a continuing love of education and took classes in poetry, oral history, public relations, bridge, lapidary, sewing, knitting, creative writing, etc. She has published two poetry books, written short stories, and, a few years ago, penned her first novella. She is honored to be a member of the International Society of Poets.
Phyllis’ parents were one of the first residents of Leisure World in 1962. When it was their time, Richard and Phyllis knew that it would be a great place to live.
Before Richard and Phyllis moved to Leisure World, she was honored to be invited into the Long Beach AF Chapter of P.E.O., an international philanthropic group. Once in Leisure World, she transferred to RT Chapter, belonging to the P.E.O. Sisterhood for almost 40 years. She also belongs to the Leisure World Community Church. She is proud to have been a member of the Lapidary Club and the Creative Writers Club.
While Phyllis is not as active as she once was, her experiences with these organizations and clubs were a job. She said that the groups are filled with wonderful and creative people that have enriched her life.
Phyllis turned 100 years old on March 28.