The View From 100: Holly Rice

By Joy Conklin September 15, 2010 11:41

Holly Rice/Photo by Ben Hicks

Don’t ask Holly Rice how it feels to be a leader in the ranks of the very old. Although he’s planning to celebrate his 101st birthday on Christmas Eve, as far as experiencing what it’s like to be very, very old, he’ll tell you he doesn’t know much about that yet.

“I see those old guys with their canes and their walkers,” he says, “and I say to myself, ‘I’m not there yet.’ ”

“I can’t explain it,” the Sonora man says, thinking about all the years piling up behind him. “I never thought much about getting older and I never tried to take real good care of myself. I smoked for 40 years. No filters, either. And I drank that Prohibition rotgut we had back then. I was in a couple of car wrecks too, but I never got hurt.”

Today at 100, he continues to be just as lucky. His driver’s license won’t expire until he’s 105. And he’s pretty healthy, though recently his daughter thought he should see a cardiologist.

“So I did,” he says, “and they hooked me up to some kind of machinery.”

The result? “He’ll outlive this machine,” the doctor said.

Holly Rice was born Dec. 24, 1909 into a railroad family in Nevada, Missouri, second son to Clara and Frank Rice. Because he was born on Christmas Eve, they called him Holly after Uncle Hol. Older brother Eddie was just 2.

Holly remembers his family as warm and loving, although his parents divorced when he was 6. After that, he only saw his father occasionally, but within several years gained a stepfather, Joe, whom he liked.

School was a mixed experience for Holly. The social part he enjoyed – baseball and dancing and roller skating – and math was tolerable, but the rest of the academics, not so much. He quit high school in his junior year.

After two fruitless years looking for work, Holly went back to school at a girlfriend’s urging and got his diploma. “But things weren’t any different after I graduated,” he says. It was 1929. The Depression was coming on, and “that piece of paper didn’t do me any good at all except to make my mother happy.”

As the Depression dragged on, Holly spent most of his time looking for work. For four years he worked with a handyman. “He didn’t have much work either,” Holly recalls, “but I did cement work with him or digging. Maybe I worked something like five days a month.”

There were other small jobs.

“I washed dishes, and in my early 20s I got some work with the WPA (Works Progress Administration) that Roosevelt started. We cut weeds, worked on the roads or cleaned out the rivers. Each of us would get just a little work, a few days at a time, and then someone else would get the work.  Can’t even remember how much they paid us. Just some kind of money.”

Still looking for work in 1932, Holly rode the rails to California, “hoboing,” as he calls it. “I told my mother we were thumbin’ it,” he says. It was dangerous. His grandfather was a railroad conductor, in fact, who had been hit by a train and killed. But Holly had watched hobos jumping on and off the trains and figured he could do the same.

“Just remember when you’re gonna jump off a moving train,” he explains, “the inside foot goes down first. Then the other one will come along.” He demonstrates. “Do it the other way, and you’re likely to lose your leg, or worse.”

His personal economy took a turn for the better when Montgomery Ward hired him as a clerk. He worked for Ward’s for several years, at several locations. In Lexington, Missouri he met Mary Catherine Stewart. He returned to California and parked cars in downtown Los Angeles for two years – starting pay, 28 cents an hour – while corresponding with Mary. They married in 1939 and settled in L.A.

Holly always wanted to work for the railroad and in 1940 got a job with Southern Pacific as an electrical crane operator, working high above the steam engines. The nation’s railroads were critical to the war effort, and his work won him seven draft deferments. It also left him partially deaf from the constant noise, and exposed him to asbestos.

“Down below, they would be lining the tops of the boilers with sheets of asbestos, pounding it in with heavy eight-inch hammers. Flakes came off, and floated right up to where I was sitting,” Holly says. “My work was very precise, so I would be leaning out so I could see better, and I breathed it all in. In those days, nobody thought nothin’ about that kind of danger.”

They bought a $4,000 house in El Monte, where they raised their two children, Eddie and Kathy. In 1952, Mary went to work at Lockheed’s Burbank factory. By 1964, respiratory problems forced Holly out of his rail job, and he began selling real estate. It was a prosperous time. “It’s hard to believe,” he says, “but CDs were paying 13 to 14 percent back then.”

Though he sold real estate for 20 years in Los Angeles and later on into his 80s in Las Vegas, Holly is modest when he reflects on the success he and his wife enjoyed. “It was all because of her hard work at Lockheed,” he says.

In 2003, Holly and Mary moved to Sonora to be near their children, and in 2007 Mary passed away.

In Holly’s home near Sonora, photos celebrating four generations cover his walls: of their children and grandchildren; of Holly himself, impressive as the Exalted Ruler of Sunland Elks Lodge, in Los Angeles County; having fun in Vegas, arm around a showgirl and posing with a million bucks; and happy shots taken on cruises over the years with his wife and children.

Holly expects he’ll continue to travel a bit, but these days his daily life is centered on housework, family and friends. He walks every day for exercise and likes to play shuffleboard or cards with friends, sometimes at the nearby senior center on Greenley Road. He enjoys excursions to Black Oak Casino and, less frequently, to Vegas. He’s always enjoyed pro wrestling and sometimes catches a match on TV.

Holly is still active in Sons in Retirement and the Sonora Geezers, a community service group with the motto, “We Give a Hoot.” He rode in this year’s Mother Lode Roundup Parade next to the Geezers’ mascot owl and a sign reading, “Holly Rice, Centenarian.”

What comes next?

“I know it can’t go on much longer,” Holly says, “but I don’t think much about it. Life’s been good to me.”

Maybe it was Lady Luck that gave him such a happy ride. Maybe it was his Christmas birth. But today he has no worries. He learned early on how to get off a moving train and has no doubt now that when it’s time to jump, he’ll get it right.

Copyright © 2010, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Joy Conklin September 15, 2010 11:41
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