103 Years of Living, Thriving, and Wisdom
By Lori Johnson
PIGEON FALLS - April 26, 2020 was a special day for Reynolds Tomter of Pigeon Falls. Not only did he turn 103 years young, but the entire town turned out (within the social distancing protocol guidelines) for a parade in his honor. Turning 103 is great in itself, especially since Reynolds still lives independently, and drives his own car, but even more heartwarming than that, is the love and respect given to a man who is known throughout the area as "Mr. Pigeon Falls". Here is his story!
Reynolds Tomter was born in 1917 in Hegge Coulee near Pigeon Falls on the Evenson family farm - in the same house in which his mother was born, to Otto and Hulda (Evenson) Tomter. As an only child, life on the farm meant working hard beside his parents with daily milking and other chores, like planting, harvesting, and worrying about the weather and how it would affect crops. It meant living through the diphtheria epidemic, Spanish Flu, the Depression, polio epidemic, the terms of 18 presidents, from horses to farm machinery, traveling per horse to traveling to outer space, outhouses to indoor plumbing, no radio or television to social media, etc.
His life changed when a young Coral City schoolteacher came to board with Otto and Hulda. Her name was Dorothea Elizabeth Hoff and she and Reynolds were married on May 27, 1939 at the Ettrick Lutheran Church in Ettrick, where she had lived with her family prior to her teaching at Coral City. When they married, except for the time he spent in the Merchant Marines in WWII from 1942 to 1945, they lived in Pigeon Falls, where he began his public service by working at the P Ekern General Store for Ernest Sletteland. They also had the ambulance & mortuary service, which entailed being on call 24/7. Reynolds bought the store in 1954 and renamed it the Pigeon Store, Inc. , where their motto was, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” He sold everything from cribs to coffins, groceries, hardware, furniture, farm equipment & medications, household items, appliances, clothing, sewing items, toiletries, etc. Talk about one stop shopping! After selling the store in 1971, he sold real estate, owning Reynolds Realty from 1973-1982. His wife was the local school teacher & principal at Pigeon Falls Elementary school until 1976. As a couple they were known as Mrs. Tomter and Reynolds.
They were a well matched pair. Loving travel, they took their kids on trips most summers to various states to see the sights and to visit relatives in the Dakotas, Colorado, Michigan, etc. They also went to the Black Hills, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Washington DC, Mackinaw Island, etc. After retirement, they enjoyed their winters in Florida, & they went to Norway twice to visit relatives and see their country of origin. They traveled to most all of the states, including Hawaii.
They were wonderful dancers, so enjoyed going to dances most all their lives; they played cards, enjoyed picnics & gatherings with friends, neighbors & relatives, bowled, loved golfing, and spent time on the Mississippi, out of Trempealeau, with their family, staying in their RV, boating, etc.
Their faith and church was a large part of their lives, both being very active in their local church. Dorothea taught & was Superintendent of Sunday school & Vacation Bible School. She wrote & directed many of the programs for both church & school, was active in Ladies’ Aid and committees. Reynolds sang in the choir, ushered, belonged to Men's Brotherhood, & served on many committees. Dorothea passed away in November of 1996.
Reynolds has continued to be very community minded his entire life. He is the oldest resident of Pigeon Falls, oldest veteran, oldest church member, oldest and only founding member of the Pigeon Falls Lion’s Club, and founding member of the Pigeon Falls Fire Department and the Pigeon Falls Town Club, which later became the Commercial Club. "You name it, I have been involved", Reynolds says.
As you can imagine once he turned 100, he has been an even more popular fellow and has been interviewed several times since then. From these interviews and observations noted from family and friends, we learned of some of Reynolds's hobbies & interests (at least until this pandemic hit). One of his favorite quotes is, "I have to get up early every day, because before I know it, it is time to watch the 10 p.m. news"! Coffee & socializing with local friends every morning downtown is his priority & he says that he's been drinking black coffee for 97 years. It is "the people," not coffee, that makes this noteworthy and is an important way "to keep up on things".
He enjoys camaraderie/time with family, reading newspapers, cooking for self & sharing things like pigs feet with others, walking most every day (weather permitting), taking drives daily to enjoy scenery or friends, & visiting with anyone. He keeps up his house as well as his car—something he is proud of. He also enjoys going on airplanes rides with two young pilot friends, and like any good Wisconsinite, is a great fan & shareholder of Green Bay Packers, and is a fan of Badger football, basketball, & the Milwaukee Brewers.
The pandemic has taken a lot of socializing away for now, which is hard on "people persons". One of his favorite pastimes had been golfing, although shoulder problems caused him to give up swinging clubs at age 100. But that doesn't stop him from going with his golfing buddies, most often being the designated golf-cart-driver. And Reynolds Tomter is definitely a "people person". Just ask John Spencer, who as part of coursework in the pursuit of his MSN, asked to interview Reynolds. He found out plenty of memories and insights. Spencer shared that: "Reynolds proudly remembers serving his country during the second World War from March 7, 1943 until August 15, 1945 in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, living on the ocean and traveling to several foreign countries. He spoke not of the war or what was expected of him, but rather of ‘the families’ and ‘relationships’ while serving his country." Similarly, he spoke of the “excellent people” encountered during two cherished trips to Norway with his late wife in 1985 and 1990.
Spencer summarized what Reynolds told him. He characterized aging as being "great." He attributed his keeping physically active to his upbringing. He said he grew up on a farm and witnessed his parents milking cows by hand every morning. When that was done, he said his mom made breakfast & on Sundays, his Dad got the horses ready to go to church. He said no matter what, they always went to town for church. Large snowfalls rendered travel difficult in the winter; however, he said his Mom and Dad attached the cutter to the horses, and they made it. Reynolds said that witnessing his parents’ determination as a young kid was inspiring to him.
Reynolds is blessed with his daughter, Julie (Mrs David)Warner, granddaughters, Beth Warner and Jill Kreiling and spouses, and great granddaughter, Andi and great grandson Cory Kreiling, as well as his son, Reynolds O. (Bud) Tomter and wife Ellen, grandsons Blair Sullivan and Jordan Tomter and spouses, and great grandsons Griffin and Smith Sullivan. Julie sees her father, now the oldest member of the extended Tomter family, whose ancestors originated in Norway, as the greatest role model for each of their family’s generations. She relates: "He has a good, positive attitude and a great sense of humor. He quickly recalls jokes, stories, quotes, memorizations from as far back as his early childhood and makes people laugh every day".
Reynolds has seen an amazing number of changes in our world these 103 years and he often discusses these changes (some bad, but mostly good). His words regarding the pandemic - "It certainly isn't a normal life anymore. It is just something we have to contend with. We just have to pray everything will be fine and it won't last too much longer."
It's easy to see that the entire Village of Pigeon Falls considers him a member of the community family as well. Reynolds is amazed at all the attention he received during his recent birthday parade, attended by over 400 people from all over the state. Not only did three local TV news stations cover it, but the "Reynolds Tomter Show" was on the news in Waterloo, IA, WCCO TV in Minneapolis, CNN from W VA, affiliates in Palm Springs, CA, Kansas City, MO, and Rhinelander & Madison, WI,!
Reynolds received about 325 cards, including many homemade cards from kids all over the area. He has been busy reading each card over again and he is so appreciative & thankful for the cards, many posters and banners displayed all over town and for all the greetings and gifts from everyone.
So in closing, when you ask him what his secret of longevity is, Reynolds' answer is: “Love of family, friends, God, and life. You only get one [life] and it is a good one, so make it the best. Stay active, make friends, be involved. That's what keeps me healthy." And that is why, at 103 years old, Mister Pigeon Falls - Reynolds Tomter is still making a difference! As he says to everyone so often, it's become his trademark - "Have a nice day, unless you have other plans!"