BENSON — When asked about longevity secrets, centenarians Mozelle Kleifgen and Paul Kerchum are quick with answers.
“Eat three meals a day and have a good husband,” Kleifgen said with a smile. “My husband (Elmer) and I were married 56 years. He died in 1991, after we shared a wonderful life together.”
Kerchum injects a splash of humor into his longevity secret.
“Zip your lips and say ‘yes ma’am,’” he said, eyes sparkling.
Gloria Kerchum, Paul’s wife of 74 years, died last December at age 91.
“Having your soulmate for a life partner is a rare blessing,” Paul said.
Benson area residents Kleifgen and Kerchum were celebrated by members of the community for reaching that 100-year milestone last Wednesday, when Washington Federal bank in Benson hosted a birthday party for the two centenarians.
They turned 100 in January, with Kleifgen born on Jan. 12, 1920, and Kerchum on Jan. 25.
While the two had never met before Wednesday’s celebration, they swapped stories like old friends and joked about how much they have in common. Both stay remarkably active, still drive, have led rewarding lives, and now live in the J-6 area just west of Benson. The two shared stories of years gone by, with attendees marveling at their quick wit and remarkable recall.
Benson Mayor Toney King pulled up a chair and spent time visiting with the two.
“You could write a book highlighting all the experiences and history between these two,” the mayor said. “Two hundred years of history. I think they’re incredible.”
Kleifgen has a lifelong passion for traveling and continues to travel today.
“My husband and I purchased a home in Rocky Point (Mexico), and I still enjoy going there,” said Kleifgen, who also talked about a road trip from three years ago where she drove to her home state of Minnesota to visit friends and family.
“I had a girlfriend with me, but I did all the driving,” she said. “It took us three days to get there.”
Mozelle and Elmer Kleifgen moved to Tucson from St. Peter, Minnesota 69 years ago because of Elmer’s health. Together, they owned and operated several businesses, including bowling alleys and restaurants. Mozelle moved from Tucson to the Benson area 11 years ago, where she is closer to her two twin sons, Brad and Bruce.
Along with traveling, she stays busy gardening, cooking and dabbles with projects around the house.
Wearing a Prisoner-of-War cap loaded with pins honoring his 29 years of military service, which include World War II and the Korean War, Kerchum is one of a handful of Bataan Death March survivors still alive today.
Kerchum started his military career at 17, after joining the U.S. Army in 1938.
“This was during the Depression years and I enlisted in the army and went into the infantry,” he said. “When I first joined, I was in E Company, 27th Infantry and served in Hawaii, then re-enlisted as a member of the B Company, 31st Infantry Regiment, and served in the Philippines from 1940 to 1945.”
After surviving what became known as the Bataan Death March, an event described as one of history’s greatest war atrocities, Kerchum spent 3 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in labor camps in the Philippeans, Taiwan and Japan under the Japanese Army.
Today, he is one of the Bataan survivors honored at the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The annual commemoration is attended by Bataan survivors with thousands of supporters from around the world.
“I’ve been attending the Bataan Memorial March for several years now, and I look forward to attending it as long as I’m able,” Kerchum said. “The memorial march is a powerful commemoration to all the men who marched that grueling 68 miles from Mariveles to the San Fernando railhead in sweltering heat with very little water. Hundreds of men died on that hot, dusty road,” Kerchum said, while answering questions about his military service.
“When the war ended in 1945, I left the Army and enlisted in what was then the U.S. Army Air Corps, but is now the U.S. Air Force.”
Kerchum retired from the military after serving eight years in the Army and 21 in the Air Force.
At 100, he is an articulate, highly sought public speaker who presents at events throughout Southeastern Arizona on behalf of veterans everywhere. He loves golf and plays every Monday at the San Pedro Golf Course in Benson.
When asked what he thought of Wednesday’s birthday celebration, Kerchum responded with, “I think this is fantastic. It was worth the 100 year wait.”