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Karen Hill, 103, who told stories of pioneers

The centenarian entertained caregivers and family with her stories of a childhood in Norway and Michigan.

By MICHELE MILLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2002

In the past few years, Karen Hill spent a lot of time reminiscing. The centenarian, said her daughter Shirley Beller, wanted her grandchildren to remember her.

Mrs. Hill died at age 103 on Sunday (Dec. 8, 2002) while her family was at church. "She wanted to live to be 200. She thought that would be neat," said Mrs. Beller, 79. "We'd just say, 'Oh Mom.' "

Mrs. Hill died after a lengthy illness, leaving behind a reputation for being quite a character along with a wealth of stories that touch three centuries.

"She was really something. She was always telling stories," said Jackie Drury, a certified nursing assistant at the Freedom Inn Assisted Living Facility in Tarpon Springs where Mrs. Hill spent the last two years of her life.

She was born as Karen Andersen on Nov. 2, 1899, in Norway. She survived more than a few close scrapes with death. At one time, she made a list for her son, John, who on Wednesday was able to recall just a few.

At age 2, she fell into a river in Norway while playing on its banks and had to be rescued.

When she was 3, her family moved to the United States. Her parents, Peder and Mathilde Andersen, carved out a 160-acre farm in the forests near Leer, Mich.

As a child, Mrs. Hill survived diphtheria that killed her brother, the 1916-18 flu epidemic, and the 1908 fire in Metz, Mich., that killed dozens and devastated more than 200,000 acres of white pine forests in Upper Michigan. She was saved from the fire when her parents put her in a huge wooden trunk that was placed over a dry well.

"The fire swept through, and everything was burned to ashes," said son John Hill, 75. "But they were able to save the house and mother."

"Mother was allergic to all kinds of medicine," recalled Mrs. Beller. "Any time a cold came, she ended up with pneumonia. She was ill on and off quite a bit."

Despite all her struggles, "my mother had a good life and a wonderful teenage life," Mrs. Beller said. "She liked to talk about all the parties they had in Alpina, Mich. Everyone from miles around went in horse and buggies, whether you were invited or not. Sometimes you stayed for the night. Sometimes you stayed a week."

In 1921 she married Remen John Hill. She became a homemaker and raised three children, Shirley, John and Ramen, during the Depression.

"I can remember, during the Depression she would make wonderful meals out of leftovers. She could knit and sew and crochet," said John Hill. "We never considered ourselves as poor."

"The only time she worked (outside the home) was six weeks during the Second World War," Mrs. Beller said. "She was a billing clerk at a local furniture store. She loved that. But my father was of the old school. He thought the man should be the breadwinner."

In 1947, the Hills moved to Grabill, Ind., where they raised sheep. In 1965, they moved to New Port Richey. After her husband's death 20 years ago, Mrs. Hill lived independently in New Port Richey until past her 101st birthday.

"She always considered New Port Richey her home and she desperately wanted to move back there," said John Hill.

On Nov. 2, the family gathered to celebrate Mrs. Hill's 103 birthday. Her daughter recalls that day fondly.

"We had a lovely party for her at the Freedom Inn, an ice cream social with cake and balloons," Mrs. Beller said. "She really enjoyed that. She roused herself and got fancied up and cut her cake, even though she tired easily."

That wasn't always the way, said Mrs. Beller.

After her youngest son, Ramen, now 63, was born on the day she turned 40, Mrs. Hill decided to stop celebrating her birthday even though she never forgot to celebrate anyone else's.

But when her 90th rolled around, Mrs. Hill decided she would resume her own celebrations.

"She discovered, hey, being 90 is kind of neat and people pay all sorts of attention to you," said Mrs. Beller. "So we had birthdays ever since."

Karen Hill is survived by her three children, eight grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild. Memorial Services are to be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at the First Lutheran Church, 6416 Delaware Ave., New Port Richey. Arrangements are being handled by Preferred Funeral Alternatives, Holiday.

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