It’s Hard Work Becoming World’s Oldest Man
Benjamin Harrison Holcomb, age 110, always ate a big breakfast, rarely drank and never smoked. Now he has lived in three centuries.
The world’s oldest man--a title recently bestowed on him by the Guinness Book of World Records--Holcomb farmed wheat, dabbled in cotton and raised cattle and children for most of his life. His family says he had few vices but he did divorce twice before his third marriage stuck.
From his birth in 1889, his life has mainly ebbed and flowed with Oklahoma’s land, weather and waving wheat.
So what is life like for a man entering a third century?
“Feels like it did yesterday,” Holcomb, whose descendants number into five generations, told daughter Leona Ford, 84.
Exhausted by phone calls from around the world after he made it into the Guinness book, he slept through most of the following few days. But his children spoke for him at his side in the Carnegie Nursing Home, where he gets daily visits from Ford, his other daughter, Lucille, 85, and son John, 80.
“He says they [the callers] are probably mixed up,” Ford said. “He’s never known he was old. He’s just one of these people who lived one day at a time.
“Life’s been fairly good for my daddy. Course, it was hard.”
Holcomb was born on July 3, 1889, in Robinson, Kan., the seventh and youngest child of Chestnut Wade Holcomb, 45, and Sarah Jane Holcomb, 41. His father fought in the Civil War as an officer on the Union side.
The year 1889 was also the year of the Oklahoma Land Rush, when huge sections of the future state were opened to white settlers. He was an infant when his family came in a covered wagon and started a farm near Seiling.
They made part of their home a school and Holcomb started classes at age 4. Part of his longevity may have begun then, Ford said. She said his mother breast-fed him until the age of 5, a practice not uncommon in pioneering days.
“I think that might be part of it. . . . She had a special little rocking chair. She would sit in it and he would stand next to her to nurse.”
Learning to read at an early age led to a lifelong pursuit. By the time he entered the nursing home, Holcomb subscribed to and regularly read about a dozen magazines and newspapers.
Tragedy struck the family when Holcomb was a boy. His father, in his 50s, decided to take the family on a trip to climb Pike’s Peak in Colorado. On the way, his father contracted pneumonia and died in Garden City, Kan.
After that, his mother was left to raise the family.
When Holcomb was 15 the boys at school were starting to drink and smoke and she extracted a promise: If he would not drink, smoke, curse or chew tobacco, she would give him a gold watch when he was 25.
“I have the watch,” Ford said. “It’s beautiful.”
Eventually Holcomb started his own farm and he worked it most of his life. He was not called up for the draft in World War I because he was a farmer with four children, and he was 51 at the outbreak of the World War II.
But with two sons fighting the Nazis in Europe, he briefly left farming and served as a cook in a military hospital.
Tragedy visited his family again when his oldest son, Chester, a gunner in a B-17, went down over the English Channel. His surviving son, John, was taken prisoner in the Battle of the Bulge and nearly died in an Allied bombing raid.
A key to his longevity, Ford said, is that her father ate a big breakfast--a big bowl of oatmeal--and not much else for the rest of the day. “He’d have a real hard day and then he’d kick back when it was done,” she said.
Holcomb did a stint building roads but that did not last long. He traded horses on the side and in later years bred a line of bird dogs. But farming shaped most of Holcomb’s life. Growing wheat on about 200 acres for more than 70 years, his farm near Apache, Okla., yielded enough to feed an estimated 500 people a year.
Now the world’s oldest man looks forward to his next milestone, his 111th birthday on July 3.
“Daddy has always been here. This is another day he’s still here. I always wonder what it will be like for us when he’s gone,” Ford said.
“If he’s living for a purpose I hope we are fulfilling that purpose. He did the best he could to make our lives good.”