Nearing the century club, great-grandfather has plenty to celebrate

Elizabeth Davies

Women just did things a little differently back then.

It was Thanksgiving Day in 1908. In a modest home in central Rockford, a woman put Thanksgiving dinner on the table for her husband and four sons. Heavily pregnant, she suggested that perhaps the boys take care of the dishes. Then she headed for her bedroom, where she proceeded to give birth — by herself and without medication — to a 13-pound, 10-ounce boy.

Nearly 100 years later, that baby boy is still a proud Rockford resident and looking forward to joining the elite ranks of centenarians.

“My time isn’t up yet. (God) decides when it’s time for me to come home,” said 99-year-old Stanley Stark. “One thing that’s affected me is how grateful I am for the life given to me.”

That’s one reason why Stark has spent the better part of 2008 celebrating his upcoming centennial birthday. The newlywed — he married his longtime girlfriend just last year — has been honored both by the church he helped start and by his family in a special golf outing. His picture hangs at Rockford Memorial Hospital, in a “Care for a Century” display.

At 99, Stark exercises to a new Wii system, attends a men’s Bible study, fills out Cryptoquote puzzles and playfully flirts with his bride. Still, Stark has been around Rockford long enough to see quite a few changes. The city’s manufacturing landscape — he worked as a mechanical engineer — is drastically different, as is its basic social structure.

Stark grew up in days when children spent hours away from home, playing made-up games in the street or fishing for crabs in the Rock River. And in those days, kids didn’t check their cell phones for the time; they listened for the daily factory whistle or followed their noses toward the scent of warm bread in the oven.

“The families back then knew where the kids were, even if we were a mile away,” he said. “Then we were all expected home at six o’clock.”

Now, as a father and stepfather to five sons, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, Stark loves the simple things in life. He’s quick to laugh, travel and spend time with people. But his favorite person is Harriet Brown Stark, his 81-year-old wife. The pair have known one another for 60 years, since both attended Alpine Church with their original spouses. Years later, after both were widowed, Brown invited him to a Sadie Hawkins dance at their church. They’ve been together since.

In 2001, Stark moved in with Brown while she cared for him after a heart attack and surgery. He never moved out, and the pair avoided marriage because they figured it would complicate things with their families.

“He has three sons; I have two,” Brown said. “We were happy with how things were.”

Still, it always bothered Stark when Brown joked that they were “living in sin.” One day, he pondered whether she would get his Social Security check when he died. And thus came the romantic proposal: “I said, ‘Let’s get married,’” Stark said. “No beating around the bush.”

Brown just laughs.

“I consider him saying, ‘Would you get my Social Security check?’ as a proposal,” she said.

The pair were married in a small ceremony in their living room, and say the relationship is the perfect fit.

“He is the type of person I love: Low-key, good sense of humor,” Brown said. “They don’t make ’em any nicer.”

In August, the Stark family hosted “Pop’s Golf Tournament” at Sandy Hollow Golf Course. There, 48 players joined Stark in a favorite game that he doesn’t play anymore. They swung with an old-fashioned club and honored the man who enjoyed golf for 80 years before giving up the game.

The birthday celebrations aren’t over: The Starks plan on getting a dog later this fall, and they’ll celebrate Stark’s actual birthday with traditional cake at their church.

After all, Stark knows that not everyone is blessed enough to see a full century on this Earth. And his goal, once he turns 100?

Make it to 101.

Elizabeth Davies can be reached