Reference Desk Include

Centurion finds plenty to celebrate as she turns 104

Mildred Madigan
Mildred Madigan has seen a lot in her 104 years on earth, the majority of those years spent in Northville. A resident at Allen Terrace, Mildred was born in South Dakota on Nov. 15, 1912 and was one of four children. Her father died of Spanish influenza when she was only 5, and her mother went on to earn a living and raise her family as a single mom. Her mother’s traits of working hard and never giving up left an impression on Mildred.

“Her mother (who lived to age 92) was a role model for the females in the family. She was strong, tough and showed others how to be a survivor,” noted Pat Van Bonn, Mildred’s only daughter.

It was not an easy childhood. Mildred knew that education was important and earned two degrees in teaching, from Eastern Teacher’s College in Madison, SD, and a master’s degree from Eastern Michigan University. While in South Dakota, she became lifelong friends with five female classmates.

“We had a lot of fun, living in the dorm,” Mildred said. After graduating, when they moved away from South Dakota, they would keep in touch through letters. They came up with a plan where one friend started a letter, mailed it to the next friend, who added to the letter and mailed it to the next friend, and so on; eventually it was mailed back to the original letter writer. “We called it a round robin. It took a couple months for the letter to make the rounds. It was very important when the letter came in,” Mildred said. That practice went on at least 12 years.

As a young teacher working in South Dakota, she was riding a train when she met a man, Bill, who was a teacher on an Indian reservation. The two fell in love and got married – a loving partnership that lasted nearly 50 years.

In 1937, at the age of 26, she and Bill came to Michigan to settle down with their one-year-old son Michael. Bill began teaching at University of Detroit High School. They bought a house at 42777 8 Mile, just one mile from downtown Northville. It was where they would raise their five children: four boys and one girl. The other children are Bill, Denny and Kerry. Favorite summer memories included swimming at the spring-fed “Campbell lake,” an oasis surrounded by trees; now known as Silver Springs lake and surrounded by housing.

Her career began by teaching all subjects to all ages in a one-room school house in South Dakota. The school house is a spitting image of the one that resides in Mill Race Village. She also worked at Sister Kenny Center in Farmington, a special education school for children with cerebral palsy. She later taught at Our Lady of Victory in Northville. Mid-career, in 1950, she was asked by Rachel Hill to start a school at the Presbyterian church. She planned and opened Northville Co-op Nursery School along with fellow teacher Sherry Meyers. Fast-forward 40 years and coincidentally Rachel now lives across the hall from her. The two of them often attend “Fun with Words” together.

Teaching was a joy for Mildred. This past fall, she was leaving Our Lady of Victory after mass and an older man came up to her and said, “You were my 4th grade school teacher,” and thanked her for her service. They chatted for a bit and after they parted ways in the parking lot, she vividly remembered an instance when she asked him to do something and he replied, “No, I’m not going to do it and that is my prerogative.” She was so impressed by his vocabulary that she didn’t admonish him.

Traveling was also a highlight of her life. Her son Michael was a pilot and the family got to fly first-class on a free airline pass. Mildred and Bill traveled to Europe, New Zealand and Australia, Scandinavia and Alaska. When she wasn’t traveling with Bill, she took trips with her girlfriends from Northville. She last got on a plane at age 99 when she flew with her children to California for a family wedding.

Mildred and Bill lived on 8 Mile until her husband’s sad passing in 1980. Mildred moved to an apartment after his death, then moved to Allen Terrace in fall 1999.

Activities that she enjoyed and excelled at involved a pool and a pool table. She swam laps throughout her life and looked like Ester Williams while doing so, according to her daughter Pat. She also did water aerobics until age 99 when her children asked her to stop driving and she could no longer get to the pool.

When she first arrived at Allen Terrace, she looked at the pool table and thought, “I can do that.” With plenty of practice, she became the resident pool shark. It’s a title that makes her proud even today, although she can no longer play since she can’t cue up from a wheelchair.

At this advanced age, her mind is willing but her body holds her back from certain activities. Thus, she can no longer swim, exercise, hang wallpaper or rake – activities that she has enjoyed throughout her life.

Family is also a joy in her life. What started as a family of five children has blossomed into 14 grandchildren, 36 great-grandchildren and one-great-great grandchild, Oliver, who is 2-1/2 years old. There are 55 offspring at this point in time. Sadly, her sons Michael and Bill, have passed away.

The keys to a fulfilling life for Mildred are: not worrying, enjoying each day as it comes, and having faith in God. She is a breast cancer survivor, and otherwise healthy. She eats a balanced diet with most meals prepared by Pat in Mildred’s kitchen. When teased about whether she likes bacon, she said, “Why sure.”

From her daughter’s perspective, “She has a positive attitude and a life of gratitude. She’s grateful for who she is. She doesn’t see the negative in people, situations or circumstances. She doesn’t criticize them.”

Her mind is strong, clear and open…and she can remember plenty. “I have a lot of good memories…I’ve had it all,” said Mildred, now 104 and counting her blessings.



Back to News