Several generations celebrate beloved matriarch’s 104th birthday


Family and friends gathered Oct. 5 to celebrate a rare occasion as Lena Michael turned 104. With banners, birthday cards, warm wishes and lots of laughter, the atmosphere was festive for the much-loved centenarian.

Lena’s son, David Michael, traveled from Wisconsin, where his mother was born on Oct. 5, 1910. Loie Michael, her daughter — who lives in Cardiff-by-the-Sea —helped organize the party with close friend Margaret Gooding. Four generations were present, including Lena’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who made the occasion jubilant.

The pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Laura Ziehl, was also a guest. She commented that Lena’s life started before women got the right to vote, and that she might see a woman in the White House for the first time in the nation’s history.

“That’s just extraordinary when you think about it,” Ziehl said.

Loie met Hillary Clinton at a recent book signing in La Jolla and purchased a signed copy of her memoir. “I mentioned to Hillary that my mother is into women’s rights, and as she is 103, she thinks it’s time we had a lady president,” said Loie. Hillary told her, “Tell your mother a personal thank you from me.”

Keeping abreast of current affairs, Lena watches cable news and has opinions on politics. She was appalled that someone was able to jump the White House wall and has deep concerns about ISIS, said Loie.

Until two years ago, Lena lived alone in Encinitas, took daily half-hour walks, volunteered at Bethlehem Lutheran Church and kept up with her crocheting. A serious fall brought her to Alta Vista, a board and care facility for the elderly in rural Vista, but her memory remains sharp.

She has clear recollections of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. She taught mathematics then, and described how the dust came through even the closed classroom windows. She remembers as a child when World War I ended, and the church bells pealed constantly in her native town of Neillsville.

Born on a farm, Lena Baumgartner had five siblings, but was closest to her identical twin, Betty. Their shared stories are family legend. They used to trade dates and do each other’s homework. Both girls attended and graduated in 1932 from Wisconsin’s Ripon College. Lena was a mathematics major and Betty an English major.

The twins were co-valedictorians in their respective classes and had the same grade point average. Growing up, they seemed to have a psychic connection. As adults, even though they were separated by a great distance, at one point they both shopped on the same day, at the same time, at a J.C. Penney’s store and purchased identical dresses, recalled David.

Both married pastors. In 1936, Lena married John Michael. She took on the role of pastor’s wife seamlessly when the two moved to Indiana. Continuing the family tradition, David is also an ordained minister.

Family life meant camping, playing piano, singing and often dining on “missionary pork chops” — thin pork chops covered with canned corn and diced tomatoes, a recipe that Lena created during the lean years when her husband’s salary was $850 a year.

Ziehl’s favorite Lena story related how on Palm Sunday last year, she came to visit Lena, who was pestered by hearing constant singing. No one else could hear it, but she insisted it was audible. “We figured out that Lena was likely hearing angels singing, helping her on this part of her journey,” said Ziehl.

Lena looked serene and smiled throughout her party and said that she was enjoying it. She said she didn’t have a secret for her longevity (her twin sister, Betty, died in 1998), adding that she “takes each birthday as it comes” as she’s never been much of a worrier. “And maybe that’s the secret to her long life,” said Loie.