by Dennis Dalman
If Eddie Peternell, age 102, rides in the St. Stephen Centennial Parade Saturday, July 19 – and chances are he will – he’s likely to nab the grand prize for the parade’s theme of “Old, Antique, Classic.”
Peternell, St. Stephen’s longest-living resident, is definitely “old” and “antique,” but he is a “classic” example of someone who’s managed to keep the “young kid” inside of him alive and well and thriving.
Currently, Peternell is in an Albany nursing home, recovering from a fall that broke one of his hips about six weeks ago. His children say he is recovering nicely and doing his physical therapy five days a week. He’s told his children he would be happy and honored to ride in the big parade.
Peternell, widely considered as the venerable St. Stephen patriarch, is supposed to ride in an antique truck that is as old as he is – 102.
“He’s getting back to his old self,” said one of his daughters, Helen Frie of St. Wendel. “If he feels up to riding in the parade, we’ll get a care cab for him for the ride from Albany, then somehow manage to get him into that 102-year-old truck. He is confined to a wheelchair, ever since he broke the hip.”
Born in log house
Peternell was born on a log-house farm north of St. Stephen April 6, 1912, one of seven children of John and Gertrude (Smoley) Peternell. John was an immigrant from Slovenia (at that time part of the Austrian Empire). He met Helen Omann in St. Stephen and married her. Helen lived until the ripe age of 92 but died 11 years ago of a heart attack during surgery.
In the 1930s, Peternell moved to a farm house west of St. Stephen where he continued to farm and live for many decades, working also at Franklin Mfg. in St. Cloud during some of those years. In those days and nights, he would get by on a skimpy four hours of sleep per day.
After retirement, he has continued to live on the farm – that is, until his recent fall.
Although Peternell was officially retired, most people would never know it. Looking far younger than his age, he continued whirlwind of activity, including participating in plowing contests, going fishing and staying active ‘round the clock. Ten years ago, at the age of 92, he won a big plowing contest in South Dakota.
Memories of Pa
Everyone who knows Peternell has favorite memories of their days with him, especially his children.
They all remember fondly what they call “pile-on Sundays.” Many a Sunday afternoon, as one of his daughters, Helen Frie of St. Wendel described it, Peternell would go out onto the lawn, lie down and relax – but not for long. His young children would attack and pile onto their daddy like new-born puppies, wrestling with him, squirming, giggling and yelling. His straw farm hat usually fell off of his head as they all wiggled and rolled in one big happy clump.
“Peternell had a deep love for his farm dogs,” Frie said. “He was proud of them, and when he retired he was so proud of the potatoes and corn he raised. He did more fun stuff after he retired and had a chance to go fishing more often, which he loved.”
Three years ago, when Peternell turned 99, his children arranged for him to spend part of a day at his boyhood school – a one-room schoolhouse, now decrepit but still standing, about a mile northwest of St. Stephen. It was something he’d always had a hankering to do – going back in time to that schoolhouse. He brought a lunch of peanut butter-jelly sandwiches in a maple-syrup can, just like he did when he was a boy. Then he sat on the school steps and munched down his lunch, remembering vividly the school days of eight decades earlier.
Lucy Senstad of St. Wendel, another of Peternell’s daughters, has some precious memories of her own.
She remembers she and her siblings going to Rice in the car when their dad had to buy farm supplies.
“We’d stop by a creek, which is no longer there,” Senstad said. “Then we’d wade around, watching the pebbles and the minnows. Those were such happy times.”
She also recalls how her father loved to go watch son Frank dirt-track racing in Sauk Centre.
“He had his favorite spot in the bleachers, and he would run to get that spot every time.”
He was also the first to make it to the pit stops after the show.
Daughter Joan Grunerud of Corcoran cherishes the memories of the time she went to California when she was 18 to visit Peternell’s sister, Mary, who lived in San Diego. They had a blast flying out there from Minnesota. Neither had been in a plane before, and the turbulence half way through the flight caused some heebie-jeebies, but they managed to enjoy it anyway, despite the butterflies in their tummies.
Relatives drove Eddie and Joan to a great many places: Disneyland, the San Diego Zoo and even a one-day trip to Tijuana, Mexico.
“Dad went with me on every crazy ride at Disneyland,” Grunerud said, “and when I heard him laughing and whooping on the scary rides like a little kid, I saw a side of him I’d never seen before. It was just amazing, I had to ask myself ‘Who IS this guy?’ “
Peternell was in his element in Tijuana because he’d always like to haggle over prices, and the markets in that Mexican city were made for bartering. Joan can still hear her father guffawing at what he thought were outrageous prices for tourists and then scuffing the toe of his shoe in the dirt until he got the price he wanted.
“I got a picture of him riding a donkey with a sombrero on his head,” she recalled. “Until that time, all I’d ever seen him wear was an old farmer’s cap on his head while sitting on a tractor.”
Another favorite memory of Grunerud’s is how the eight kids would all squeeze into the car to go places, especially to Frommelt’s Hardware in Rice. If he had a bit of extra money, he’d buy the children mini pieces of farm machinery for their sandbox.
“But it had to be Farmall brand toys,” she said. “I remember little tractors, disks, balers and things like that. Those toys gave us so many happy hours in the sandbox.”
Yet another favorite memory of the children – a comical moment – is the time son Edward Jr. was remodeling the bathroom in the farm house west of St. Stephen. The old house was far from plumb; it had offset dimensions here and there. As Edward Jr. used the tile saw to cut tiles, Edward Sr. asked him, “Where’s the T-square? Aren’t you going to use the T-square to make sure everything’s plumb?”
Edward Jr., in a deadpan way, peered around the off-plumb room and said in a jaundiced way: “T-square? Why start now?”
Peternell’s children, besides Lucy, John, Helen, Frank and Edward Jr. – all mentioned above, are John of Albany, Jim of Shevlin and Rosemary Peternell of St. Paul. Frank lives in Florida, and Edward Jr. still lives on the farm west of St. Stephen.
Secrets of longevity
Many times Peternell’s children are asked what’s the secret of their father’s longevity. They do have some theories.
“He was always working, always active,” Frie said.
His infinite curiosity was also a big plus, she added.
“He was always trying to figure out a better or an easier way of doing things, always trying to re-invent the wheel, so to speak. Right after his injury put him in the nursing home, he said to me, ‘You know these wheelchairs just aren’t made right. They’re way off. The wheels should be located farther out from the chair.’ “
Diet didn’t seem to play much of a roll in Peternell’s good health. He ate more or less what he darned well pleased.
When he was in his late 90s, he asked Dr. Newton of St. Joseph.
“Doc,” he said. “I’ve been filling up my sugar bowl too often lately. Should I cut back?”
“At your age, Eddie,” Newton said, smiling, “You can eat whatever you want.”
Another key to health may be laughter.
“Dad always loved to laugh a lot,” Frie said. “He really enjoys living.
One of the St. Stephen Centennial activities will be a game Saturday between alumni of the St. Stephen Steves baseball team versus a team from St. Wendel. Peternell played for the Steves many decades ago.
“He could hit the ball like a madman,” Frie said, “but catching the ball just wasn’t his thing.”
Frie said she wouldn’t be surprised if good ol’ Eddie the slugger wheels up to bat and gives it another try. Maybe, just maybe, once again he’d hit that ball right out of the park.
Eddie Peternell operates an old-fashioned threshing binder during a threshing festival, the kind he used for many decades of his long life.
photo by Dennis Dalman
Eddie Peternell sits with his lunch pail on the steps of the old one-room schoolhouse he attended so many years ago. Now 102, Peternell is the oldest St. Stephen resident, and he will be honored July 18-20 during the St. Stephen Centennial Celebration. This photo was taken in 2011.
photo by Dennis Dalman
At age 99, three years ago, Eddie Peternell sat on the steps of his old one-room schoolhouse near St. Stephen.
Eddie Peternell, now 102, sits on an old tractor as its belt drives the mechanisms of a threshing machine.