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North Bend's newest 100-year-old, Marie Nichols, looks back on a life lived with strength

Marie Nichols skis at Alaska’s Independence Mine slope in 1942 with first husband Harold. She was an avid, competitive skier as a girl, hitchhiking up Rainier. - Courtesy photo
Marie Nichols skis at Alaska’s Independence Mine slope in 1942 with first husband Harold. She was an avid, competitive skier as a girl, hitchhiking up Rainier.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

When Marie Nichols of North Bend blows out the candles this weekend, she’ll have a century of experiences to look back on.

Many memories are faded, but Nichols, who turns 100 on September 15, remembers of the big moments and the major changes of her long life, with help from her children.

Growing up in Auburn, Wash., she was an avid skiier who focused on family, supported an ailing husband for decades, and ultimately outlived three spouses.

“I was strong, all right,” she says.

Today, Marie lives at Snoqualmie Valley Elder Care in North Bend, where caregiver, Dora, describes her as a smart, well-educated tenant.

Last week, she was visited by her youngest son, Steve Conklin, and his wife, Missy. They’re organizing a 100th birthday party for Marie, 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, at the care center.

Marie married three times. She became Marie Conklin in 1937, Marie Loehr in 1978 and Nichols in 1985, and she loved all three men. Asked about her husbands, “The tears are coming already,” Marie replied.

She was born Marie Smith on Sept. 15, 1913. Marie grew up in the South Sound and attended the Aquinas Academy for young women in Tacoma in her high-school years.

Growing up in Auburn, she remembers cold winters and long underwear. Attending the girls’ school, “those were the best years of my life.”

She helped pay for her schooling by working as a janitor, but her outside interests were skiing, tennis and music. Marie practiced the violin for three hours a day, but never really developed a great feel for it. Another student, she remembered, barely practiced, but was better than her.

But Marie was truly good at skiing. She spent a good part of her young life on skis, joining the Penguin Ski Club. In 1937, she won the club’s women’s slalom race, defeating Gretchen Kunic Frazer, later the first American gold medalist in the Olympic Games.

“I lived to ski!” said Marie, who, at about age 17, hitchhiked up Mount Rainier for a ski session.

“This fellow looks over at me and says, ‘Isn’t a good-looking girl like you afraid to hitchhike?’ she recalls. “I said ‘No, I’d take my skiis and hit ‘em over the head if they tried anything funny.’”

In those days, there were no rope or chair lifts up the mountain.  “We hiked up,” said Marie. She’d maybe get three runs in a day.

Family life

Shortly after her big skiing win, she married Harold W. Conklin. Skiing days were over, and she concentrated on raising a family.

She and Harold had four children, Sue, Bill, Steve and Theresa. At first, they lived in a log cabin in woods near Bremerton. Harold supported his family by cutting fireword for $6 per cord. To this day, Marie remembers those days as some of the happiest of her life.

Harold graduated from the University of Washington and joined the U.S. Army as a career soldier. For some years, they lived on nine acres in the Eastgate area of Bellevue.

But Harold wanted to be a dairy farmer. In 1952, he and Marie bought a 62-acre farm in Fall City.

But then Harold was transferred to Ketchikan, Alaska, and their life changed. Harold started having bad tumbles down the stairs. The neighbors thought he was drunk, but it was far more serious—he had multiple sclerosis.

The family moved back to Seattle, where Harold could be treated. Devoting herself to her husband and family, Marie drove him every day to Madigan Hospital near Tacoma. Over the next 30 years, his condition steadily declined, and Harold began to rely on a wheelchair. He died from the ravages of MS at age 61 in 1972.

“She’s the one that held our family together,” Steve said of his mom. “She had to do the nursing. She would take in boarders who would pay to stay there.”

To keep the family afloat, Marie leased out the farm in Fall City to Fred Koba, who raised strawberries.

Marie loved to travel and visit relatives in St. Louis, Mo., and Germany. When she was a girl, she traveled a lot by train.

“Dad worked for the railroad. We got passes, my mother and I. We really enjoyed it.”

Later in life, her eldest son, Bill, became a pilot for Northwest Airlines. This allowed Marie to fly cheap, and in a visit to St. Louis, she met and fell in love with her second husband, Oliver Loehr, marrying him in 1978. But their happiness was short-lived. Oliver died of a heart attack the following April.

Another love was square dancing. She and Harold had learned to square dance during their Alaska days, and she kept it up until age 85.

“We loved it! she said of the pasttime. “The camraderie—everybody loved each other!” She met Bill Nichols at a square-dancing club. He became husband number three in 1987. Bill died of Alzheimer’s disease three years ago.

At that time, Marie was fighting for her life in a serious bout with pneumonia. She was in Virginia Mason Hospital when Bill died.

Marie, Steve remembers, never complained about her lot in life, and always had a positive attitude.

The biggest change that Marie noticed in her long life was the changes of transportation and growth. She remarked to Missy how there are so many people now, so many cars, and everyone drives so fast.

“I’m in awe of her,” said Missy Conklin, Marie’s daughter-in-law, “all the things she’s done in life. Maybe that’s the answer to longevity—hard work.”

“There’s no one to compare her to,” added Steve.

North Bend resident Marie Nichols, left, with son Steve, turns 100 this week. In her long life, Marie Nichols danced, skiied, married three times, and almost singlehandedly raised a family.

 

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