IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Where’s 104-year-old Waldo? Still working!

Still spry and agile at 104, Kansan Waldo McBurney briskly walks most days from home to work in his High Plains farming community, where he raises bees and sells honey.
Waldo McBurney, 104, takes a break from tending his beehives in Quinter, Kan., on Oct. 17.Charlie Riedel / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

QUINTER, Kan. — Waldo McBurney lives in two worlds: one of buggies and hitching posts — and the other of a growing trend of older Americans working longer.

Still spry and agile at 104, McBurney briskly walks most days from home to work in this High Plains farming community, where he raises bees and sells honey.

When McBurney was born on a nearby farm, flying was left to the birds and people communicated by writing letters. A three-mile trip to town in a wagon took a half hour, and working 10 hours a day, six days a week was the norm.

McBurney has worked since he can remember. At age 4 or 5, he gathered eggs from the hens in the old sod house where his parents had lived until shortly before he was born. His first paying job at age 13 was guiding a lead team of horses pulling a wheat thrasher. For that, he was paid 50 cents a day.

"After you finished with the chores, we would light the kerosene lamp and read," he said.

He started gardening on the farm and even now raises fruits and vegetables in his backyard, bending down to pick tomatoes and put them in a pail.

"I like to see things grow, whether it's cats, or calves or tomatoes," said McBurney, his hands steady and his grip strong.

Award winner
In October, Experience Works gave McBurney its "America's Oldest Worker for 2006" award at a ceremony in Washington.

"He may not be the oldest worker but he is up there and definitely outstanding," said Cynthia Metzler, president of the national group, which provides training and employment for the senior citizens.

Metzler called McBurney "a real role model for all of us" at a time when Americans are working longer.

"People are living longer and don't have enough money to sustain themselves. Some want to work to remain active," she said.

While it can't be said definitively that McBurney actually is the oldest American working, the odds favor him.

"I can just go about anywhere and be the oldest. The ones my age don't run around that much," said McBurney, with wisps of white hair and weathered face and hands.

Sign erected
The United States has an estimated 77,770 centenarians, about 0.026 percent of the population. The average American life span is 77.9 years.

After McBurney's award, the town erected a sign near his office: "Congratulations, Waldo. America's Oldest Worker."

"I never considered myself a great character. They are testing my humility," he said.

Those who know McBurney say he's indeed a humble man who believes in helping his neighbor.

"He doesn't think he's more special than anyone else. I don't know if I've heard a negative word out of his mouth," said Laura Kesler, vice president of KansasLand Bank. "He always looks at the positive side, and that's probably why he's lived as long as he has."

For McBurney, work is good.

"I'm not a strong believer in retirement. I don't think retirement is in the Bible. Maybe it's there, but I haven't found it," he said.

Hobby becomes a career
After graduating from college in 1927, he worked a quarter century variously as a vocational-agricultural teacher, county extension agent and at the local co-op. In the 1950s he started a seed-cleaning business. He also took a decades-long hobby of beekeeping and went into the honey business.

He operated the seed-cleaning venture until age 91 and still raises bees and sells honey, although much less than before.

"I'm trying to get out of the bee business because my back isn't standing up like it should," he said. "I hope somebody else will be handling the bees. I'll keep a few at the house to raise our own honey."

In 2004, McBurney published his book, "My First 100 Years: A Look Back from the Finish Line," which he sells in his office.

"Selling books isn't retiring," he said. "I expect to be working."

He enjoyed running all his life and at age 65 took up long-distance running. A decade later, he began competing in the Senior Olympics, the World Masters and other events, winning 10 gold medals for track and field events.

Just retired from running
McBurney stopped competing a couple years ago, but almost every day he still walks the four blocks from his white framed house trimmed in blue to his Main Street office.

"My running got so slow I could walk as fast as I could run," he said.

He wears glasses, but his eyesight is good enough that his driver's license was renewed in September. Yes, he still drives, but not often.

McBurney lives a low-key lifestyle with his wife of 44 years, 92-year-old Vernice. They have five adult children from previous marriages.

"He's pretty gentle, but he has a mind of his own," she said.

He said with a chuckle: "When we got married, the deal was she would look after me in my old age and give me a decent burial. Well, she's taken care of me but she hasn't buried me yet."

He attributes his longevity to many things _ genes, exercise, food, mental attitude and faith. Many in his family lived into their 80s and 90s.

McBurney believes in a healthy diet with lots of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, much of it grown in his garden.

"The kids in the city come home from school with nothing to do. They sit down in front of the TV with a bottle of pop and a sack of potato chips and they get fat, and fat is a killer," he said.

No drinking, no smoking
McBurney says he never smoked or drank alcohol, which he believes helped him live longer.

"I always got along fairly well without them, so I still don't know the taste of either of them," he said.

Faith has been the center of McBurney's life, and it's why he doesn't worry about death.

"The Bible says God will supply all your needs," he said. "I feel like the next life is secure."

McBurney has adapted to the changing times, and even has a cell phone.

"I don't use it very much. I had to get it because my wife wanted to know what ditch I'm in if I don't get back," he said.

When he flies, airline officials look twice at the birthday listed on his driver's license.

"Some of them act like they doubt it," he said.