Bill Sniffin: What’s Killing Our Wyoming Folks Over 100 Years Old?

Columnist Bill Sniffin writes: "The last four months appear to have been a terrible time for our folks over 100 years of age in Wyoming we have at least ten who have died."

Bill Sniffin

October 12, 20226 min read

Collage Maker 12 Oct 2022 03 59 PM

By Bill Sniffin, publisher emeritus

The last four months appear to have been a terrible time for our folks over 100 years of age in Wyoming – we have at least ten who have died. 

The Cowboy State is the lowest populated state in the country and as such, does not have a lot of folks over 100 years old. Called centenarians, the state started the year with an estimated 29 of them.

I have been writing about folks over 100 years old, it seems, during my entire career and one thing that seems consistent is the time of year in which they typically die. Most often, it is after Christmas and during the cold, dark days of winter. 

But not this year. These folks expired during the prettiest time of the year – the summer months, when days are long and temperatures are warm. 

Plus, these folks all survived the COVID pandemic that plagued the world during 2020 and into 2021. They, obviously, were survivors. 

Cowboy State Daily has consistently published the state’s obituaries each week. I find reading many of them to be fascinating. These folks led some very interesting lives. I would challenge our readers to click on the names and read about some of these folks. 

Of the ten who recently died, we have people who served in World War II, women who drove trucks, men who competed in the senior Olympics at the age of 100, those who loved living in the emptiness of Wyoming, and some folks who literally lived lives to their fullest. 

Seriously, is it not unusual for so many of our older prominent residents to die during this time? It appears yes, but there is no conspiracy at work here. Their wonderful lives just came to an end. These are their stories.

The oldest of this group who passed was Mary See, 107, who was tied with Vera Brown of Recluse as the state’s oldest. Vera is still going strong. Here is the list of the ten recent centenarians who have died:

Mary See, 107, Powell. Mary See was married to her husband Claude, for 67 years and they bought a farm on the north end area of Powell in 1938. She enjoyed fishing and camping in the Beartooth Mountains, reading a good book, and gardening.

Pauline Stearns-Welty, 105, Riverton. She and her husband had a dairy in the Pavillion area. In a nice tribute by reporter Randy Tucker, she was referred to as an icon in that part of Fremont County.

Zella Rogers, 104, Cheyenne. Zella had six siblings and as the eldest girl, by the time she was four, she would stand on a stool in their sod house and make biscuits for her family. Zella loved ranch life out in the “middle of nowhere” on the hot, dry prairie. Zella would ride her white horse to school two miles back-and-forth every day with her black dog, Tip. 

Her children recalled how Zella always left the backdoor to her house unlocked and everyone in town knew her place was a safe haven for anyone needing care, love, a cup of coffee, or gas money

Jack Burns, 103, Cheyenne, was a great Wyoming character. Poet Mary Oliver asks, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” After 103 and a half beautiful years, it’s clear that Jack Burns’ answer was: “Everything!”  John (Jack) Bishop Burns spent his young childhood in Lander and Riverton, filling his curious brain, surviving pneumonia, and bonding with his horse Chief—which sounded like Cheese when he said it through missing front teeth

After Jack earned his dental degree, a friend dragged him to a Valentine’s Day dance with the promise of a setup with a pretty girl. Then Jack was called away during World War II, and while he was gone, Jack and Lora kept a long-distance relationship. Jack called Lora to see if she’d like to ask for time off from nursing school. He wondered if she might to drive to Texas and marry him. They spent the next 65 years together. 

He enjoyed water skiing, golfing, traveling, hunting, fishing, spending time with family and friends, protecting his raspberry crop from hungry birds, making gorgeous stained-glass pieces in his basement workshop, challenging anyone to a game of cribbage, relaxing with his dog, cheering on the Wyoming Cowboys, being a social butterfly, and drinking his nightly glass of Scotch, which he poured every day at 4:59 p.m.

Ethel Gerard, 102, was born in Thermopolis in 1919 to Scottish immigrants. Ethel was a college graduate in an era when few women even attended college. During the war, Ethel worked as a typist for V-Mail-–a program designed to reduce the physical mass of mail to and from soldiers stationed overseas. V-Mail letters were written on a special form, photographed into microfilm, transported across the world. 

After the war, the Heart Mountain Relocation Center was dismantled and Ethel typed the catalog of all the bits and parts that could be distributed elsewhere. Ethel’s final government job was to drive a truck to Texas. Social security cards had just come out, and in those days, they listed occupations. She enjoyed the responses of others seeing this pretty little blonde listed as a “truck driver.”

Chuck Bruner, 102, Douglas, was born at Bruner Ranch home south of Douglas. Following a childhood rooted in his rural life on the ranch, he ultimately spent three years with the Navy during WWII. In 1949, he began building his innovative straw-bale home. 

Chuck’s career in mechanics was a testament to his lifelong universal curiosity. Chuck’s love of the Wyoming outdoors, specifically hunting, fishing, and camping continued into his 93rd year. In 2014, Chuck participated in Wyoming’s Senior Olympics and continued into his 100th year, always in his cowboy boots and jeans.

Robert Paul Bixby, 101, Cheyenne, grew up on a homestead claim 15 miles north of Cheyenne in the Little Bear neighborhood where Paul walked to the Goggin School about a mile away. He went on to receive training as an electrician and soon enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was the first Cheyenne member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and received his 85-year pin from that union.

Bertha Sandberg, 101, Albin, received her Bachelor’s degree from Chadron State. She served as president of Gamma Chi Omega, was homecoming queen, member of the College Chorus and of Cardinal Key Honor Society. She taught business and Latin at Chugwater for two years. She married Marvin Sandberg when he returned from World War II and they lived on a wheat farm near Albin.

Eleanor Steinberg, 100, Riverton, spent the majority of her life in Philadelphia before coming to Wyoming. She loved dancing plus her grandchildren, and great grandchildren very much. She had a wicked sense of humor and was kind to everyone she met.

Anna Amelia Nelson, 100, Torrington. Anna grew up on the family ranch near Jaireh and attended country school there at Dry Creek. She married Linden Nelson on February 4, 1939 at Keeline, where the couple were married just shy of 77 years. 

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.