Kingman's Irene Klein a picture of dignity, charm at 100

Marguerite Steele shows off the clothing items her mother, Irene Klein, made by hand. Irene will celebrate her 100th birthday March 30.

DOUG McMURDO/Miner<BR> Marguerite Steele shows off the clothing items her mother, Irene Klein, made by hand. Irene will celebrate her 100th birthday March 30.

KINGMAN - Four point two billion.

That's how many beats - give or take - the heart in Irene Klein's chest has taken since the day she was born nearly a century ago. Irene's life started on March 30, 1914.

So it comes as no surprise that Irene's hearing is shot. Her eyesight is failing. She is frail. But her dignity and charm remain intact. She insisted on sitting for an interview at the Cerbat Guest Home where she lives.

In the closet of her room are her clothes, which is to be expected. What takes one by surprise is the number of garments in the closet that she made for herself.

Her daughter, Marguerite Steele, proudly displayed mom's garments to show off her prowess with needle and thread.

Irene made reversible pantsuits - stylish and practical - sweaters, shirts, dresses and shawls.

What began in the 1930s as a necessary means to survive the abject poverty that came with the Great Depression, Irene's sewing would explode with creative inspiration somewhere around the age of 70, when she and Norman retired and moved from California to Kingman.

That was in 1982 and she devoted most of her free time to her sewing and her crafts.

"I enjoyed it," Irene said. "I sewed, knitted, crocheted."

"She did beautiful work," said Marguerite, 76. "She made me a beautiful pair of earrings. I can't believe I didn't wear them today of all days."

The Depression

"That was a tough time," Irene said. "You scratched for your food."

Her father had steady work as a carpenter before the stock market crash of 1929 that set off the Great Depression.

When it hit it hit hard and jobs were next to impossible to come by.

She met Norman in Fond du Lac, Wis., in the middle of the devastation. Norman was in town from Chicago and his cousin arranged a blind date.

The pair hit it off and exchanged letters for a couple of years.

Norman was more than a good-looking man. He had a job at a Chicago print shop and the two of them married on July 7, 1936 in a Fond du Lac Catholic church.

Marguerite was born 13 and a half months later, at an orphanage, because the cost of childbirth was less expensive than a hospital. Seeking out a bargain, even to pay for childbirth, was a common enough practice during the cash-starved Depression.

A brother, Norman Jr., came along two years later. Irene delivered the boy on the kitchen table. Pneumonia claimed Norman Jr. when he was 2 years old.

The war effort and beyond

Irene and Norm spent World War II in California, where Norm worked at the shipyards, helping to rebuild the Navy's fleet after the destruction inflicted by Japan at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Irene began a lifelong career in retail management.

There was worldwide demand for Norman's skills as a welder and steamfitter following the war and he was often gone from home for up to two years at a time in places like Saudi Arabia, Puerto Rico and South America.

Sometimes, recalled Irene, Norman would bring home a surprise for the family.

Those surprises were not always legal to bring into the country. They included parrots, an alligator hatchling and two monkeys.

When asked what happened to the alligator, Irene and her daughter snicker as they replied in unison:

"The cat ate it."

Norman's work eventually brought him back home for good, and he took a job in Tucson, where Irene managed a section of a major department store.

After retiring in 1982, they moved to Kingman for the city's affordability and slower pace. They bought a travel trailer and toured the West.

Marguerite learned to grow vegetable and flower gardens in the Mohave Desert and life moved along like life does.

A life of devotion

After 100 years, and more than 2 billion heartbeats, Klein's memory begins with the despair of the Great Depression and seems to end the same way, in despair for the most part, when her beloved Norman died on July 3, 2010, four days shy of what would have been their 75th wedding anniversary. He was 97.

Irene said the secret to their happy marriage and long lives could be attributed to two factors: One was Norman's prolonged absences. "The heart really does grow fonder when those we love are absent," she said.

The other factor was the couple, whose love was forged when life was all about staying alive long enough to find the next meal, made a commitment to always be there for each other.

"I loved it when he was home, and I loved waiting for him," she said. "How I loved him. We stuck with each other for almost 75 years.

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