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Century man hits the mark

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Gresham's Lisle 'Bill' Meloy shares ups and downs of life well lived.


OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Bill Meloy of Gresham turned 100 on Tuesday, Nov. 15. The centenarian has never owned a computer. Here, he speaks to assembled family members and friends at his party at the Monarch Hotel in Clackamas.Are you feeling older or wiser today, Mr. Meloy?

“Not wiser,” the soon-to-be centenarian replies. “I don’t have the secret (of longevity). I just didn’t worry about getting old.”

But a few minutes later, he says something truly profound.

“Set some goals, and if you don’t make them, don’t worry. Get up and start over again.”

He regards the question for a moment more. There’s one more thing: “Surround yourself with friends.”

Well, he certainly accomplished that. OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Bill remembers when the first radio reciever was installed on top of the Musselshell school. 'All we got was squeaks and sqawks,' he recalled later. These retro radios were placed at each table as a reminder of those days.

On Sunday, Nov. 13, nearly 100 guests packed the Monarch Hotel in Clackamas, one for every year of Lisle “Bill” Meloy’s long, long life. The Gresham resident officially reached triple digits on Tuesday, Nov. 15.

Born on the same date in 1916 near Musselshell, Mont., Meloy has lived through two world wars, the widespread adoption of radio, the invention of television and the internet, plus countless other historic events.

Growing up during the Great Depression, it was no featherbed life for homesteaders like Meloy and his parents, Iva and Frank. In the good years, the family could grow acres of grain, raise a few hundred sheep and hold onto about 10 milk cows. In the bad years, they ate pigeon.

Winters, long and cold back then, were the hardest. Everyone — including brothers Robert, Bert, sister Verda and Uncle Bob — would sleep in the kitchen. Meloy remembers waking up with snow banked around the corners of his shared bed.

In 1929, the family moved to Roseburg, and later leased a new farm in Wilbur, about eight miles to the north. Roseburg felt like a metropolis to Meloy, mostly because the Rose Motel had an electrified neon sign. The local elementary school had separate classrooms for each grade, another big perk.

By the time Meloy was 20, the family would move again, this time to Glide, another small southern Oregon town on the North Umpqua River. It was the first land the Meloys had owned outright, and Bill, Bert, Dad and Bob all worked to fix up the property.

By 1939, he was working in the Benton Gold Mine in Josephine County, making what was then a decent wage: 57 cents an hour.

“I never worked so hard and felt so good in my life,” he told The Outlook on Sunday. “I’d come out of the mine and hop into bed.”

In 1941, Meloy married Helen Adams, the third woman he had ever “gone steady” with. They went on to have two daughters, Rita and Diane. He wrote later that missing the birth of his first daughter was one of his deepest regrets.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Memories of Bill adorned the entire banquet room where his birthday party was held. Here, family members enjoy a display of photos of Bill taken through the years. There’s so much more to tell. Later Meloy would work as a cable splicer, boat builder and house constructor. Because of his poor eyesight, he spent World War II mining copper rather than going to battle. At the peak of his career, Meloy served as director of facilities planning at Portland State University, where he managed carpenters and contractors.

Carpentry was always a passion for Meloy, even before he made headlines for his ukulele-crafting skills, a hobby he started in his early 90s.

Instead, woodworking was something he picked up from the hired hands and field helpers who drifted from farm to farm. In his self-deprecating recollections, the gift of a drawknife or a folding rule was just a way to get an inquisitive boy out from underfoot.

But listen to him describe selling his first wood product, a ring toss game bought by a neighbor in Montana.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Bill is a talented woodworker and luthier who crafts hand-made ukeleles. He and his work was featured in a 2011 issue of Boom! magazine. “I think she paid me a dollar,” he wrote in his memoirs in 1991. “She said I was a genius, and I believed her. It’s amazing how a few kind words along the way of life can do so much as you develop.”

The ukuleles had a different provenance. They remind Meloy of the frequent trips to Hawaii he shared with Helen, who died of cancer at age 65. Though he came from a family of fiddle players, he never learned how to play the miniature guitars.

“I thought they would be easier to build, but it’s actually harder,” he explains of ukuleles. “They’re smaller.”

Back at the party, Meloy stands at the podium, unfurling a handmade scroll he claims has his “notes” written on them.

“I took the liberty of inviting a few members of the medical profession here, just in case,” he jokes. “I asked them not to wear their white coats. That’s to keep people from asking for free medical advice.”

He thanks everyone for attending, then promises a surprise performance by the Hollywood Ukulele Group — that’s Hollywood, Portland, he clarifies.

“OK, I think that’s enough,” he concludes. “Let’s party!”OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Here is another example of Bill's woodwork.