Alma and Hans Stibolt are living proof that Tom Brokaw was right.
The veteran newsman’s 1998 book “The Greatest Generation” profiled the American generation that spent their childhood in the 1930s Depression, fought World War II and Korea, then built lives and communities and an abundance of shared culture, education, and wealth the world had never before seen.
Mr. Brokaw described the generation’s men and women as people of principle, who made life decisions based not on potential benefit or recognition, but because they were the right things to do. “It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced,” he said.
His premise came to mind last month while visiting the Stibolts in their home in Oak Bluffs. Alma (Loerke) Stibolt, 94, does most of the talking these days. Hans, 96, her husband of 75 (yes, 75) years, now lives with dementia, though his warm smile of greeting gives no indication of his struggle. The couple have four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
The couple and their daughter, Island resident Nancy Newman, talked with the Times on a brisk, sunny winter morning at the Stibolt home in Oak Bluffs, amid the piney woods near Sengekontacket Pond and the Farm Neck Golf Club.
Alma Stibolt is attractive, slender, and mannerly, a clear and steady woman. She sits upright on her living room sofa, answering questions after thoughtful consideration, though as Mr. Brokaw pointed out about her generation’s character, she appears to be a trifle bemused that current generations would find the details of her life and times to be fascinating, let alone interesting.
But there are not many left of this generation, that pick-and-shoveled their way through the 1930s’ Great Depression, building the Hoover Dam and the Sagamore Bridge, then headed off to war. Their stories are important. This story grew from a thought Ms. Newman had while searching for a 75th anniversary card for her parents in November. “I couldn’t find any,” she said about a marriage of such length, and one that has endured much and prospered.
Alma and Hans met through a friend. “I guess you could call it a blind date. My cousin was dating a friend of Hans, and they came by and picked me up. We were 16 or 17, I guess. We both went to Technical High School in Springfield,” Mrs. Stibolt said.
Seventy-five years later, Mrs. Stibolt’s recollection of their meeting continues to enliven her, produces an animated retelling about meeting the man she would marry. “He was it. I never dated anyone else. He had great character, brains, and looks, a great physical appearance. We’ve both given everything we had to staying together and trying to move ahead. We’ve never spent time apart. I think we’ve been lucky to have met the right person, and it’s easier to grow old living the way we’re living, being together and healthy enough to do things,” she said.
Mrs. Stibolt oftens refers to luck and good fortune to explain the couple’s strongly built, well-lived lives from humble beginnings on the outskirts of Springfield, Mass. They are descended from immigrants, offspring of working people — mechanics, carpenters, and nurses. They were raised in an essentially 19th century culture, unaware of their impending immersion in a world tipping toward chaos.
Mr. Stibolt was born in 1920, several months before American women would exercise their newly-won right to vote. Alma Loerke was born in 1922, seven years before the Great Depression would paralyze American life.
The Stibolts were both good students; Alma carried a 94.5 average through high school, but “there was very little money. Parents weren’t able to afford college [tuition] in the Depression. There was always enough food, though. Our fathers were very handy, and worked at whatever came their way to take care of their families,” she said of life in the 1930s.
More life challenges were on the way. The Stibolts were married in Springfield on Nov. 15, 1941. Both were kids, really, when World War II overtook the world — she was 19, Hans was 21. Exactly three weeks after their wedding day, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
“We knew [war] was coming; you could sense that,” Mrs. Stibolt said of the event that soon brought the U.S. Army to Hans Stibolt’s door. Hans was drafted and sent to Officer Candidate School training in Baltimore, then to ordnance training in Nebraska.
New parents of a son (Kenneth, now retired in Knoxville, Tenn.), Mrs. Stibolt, barely 20, new baby in hand, went to Baltimore, then to Nebraska, where Hans was receiving advanced training. “We were housed in rows of cement-block buildings that we shared with Japanese-American citizens who were being interned during the war,” she said.
Then Hans went to southwest France for two years, where his unit provided artillery support for the Allied invasion and its ultimate drive to liberate France. Mrs. Stibolt returned to Springfield with her son, got her old job back, rolled bandages for the Red Cross, and waited. “They were not happy times,” she said. “But you had to bite the bullet and take care of things, understand household expenses and how the automobile worked. You had to face those things; there was a lot you had to learn and take care of. Rationing didn’t bother me. We didn’t have butter, but there was no shortage of food,” she said of government limits on consumer access to supplies, including gasoline, tires, and butter, needed for the war effort.
“Life teaches you grit, and that was a great lesson. It didn’t seem so at the time, but it was. We were lucky. Hans was in artillery, so he was not on the front line. He telephoned as often as he could; he was very good about keeping in touch. Of course you worried, you never knew, my sister lost her husband in France,” she said.
After two years of war service, Mr. Stibolt came home, and the family, joined by new baby Nancy, got on with their lives. Mr. Stibolt had worked at the U.S. Envelope Co. in Springfield before his military service. He returned to his job on a very low rung of the corporate ladder, and began working his way up the ranks of the country’s largest paper-products company.
Many World War II veterans signed up for military reserve units after the war, generally for the benefits and a few extra bucks a month in drill pay. Mr. Stibolt did too. When the Korean conflict erupted in 1950, he was reactivated, and served stateside during the conflict.
Then back to his family, to U.S. Envelope, and “a normal family life,” as Mrs. Stibolt describes it. The hardworking Springfield kid, now in his 30s, whose career was on hold for its first 10 years, within a dozen years became the president of the former U.S. Envelope Co., a Westvaco Corp. subsidiary, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1980.
The Stibolts moved to the Island then. “We had rented here for summers for awhile.”
One of Kenneth’s high school guidance counselors had a place here, and we rented it and loved the Island,” she said, also noting a family connection: “My mother was a Tilton, vaguely related to the Island Tiltons, so we had some sense of the place.” In 1968, the couple bought a seasonal home first in the Waterview Farms section of Oak Bluffs. Both were avid golfers.
“One day, around 1980, I think, Tim Sweet [Farm Neck golf course’s general manager] called and told us there was one lot left in a community planned for the new Farm Neck golf course, and we took it right away. Sold our house in western Massachusetts and moved here for good,” she says with some relish, adding, “No one knew whether Farm Neck would make it, so it was a big decision.
“Life’s been good to us. We were fortunate. We had a good growing-up. We lived through the Depression, there was never enough money, but we made it,” she said, noting differences between living patterns today and how life was lived three generations ago.
“We lived on the outer edges of Springfield. Families knew each other. Kids all played together and grew up together. Today everything moves fast,” she said, noting that “people stayed put, had a good community and family foundation, grew up together. There was less divorce,” she said.
She is struck by the dominance of money today as a major change in the way life is lived. “I guess primarily the monetary scene is bigger today [than in our lives]. Now, having some money is a good start,” she said, adding, “We grew up in the Depression; there wasn’t enough money. We never dreamed we would have the lives we have today.”
Their daughter, with a 45-year marriage, has paid attention to the modeling her parents have presented in terms of living life and building relationships.
“They have always been ethical people, lived ethical lives. They haven’t chewed up or pushed people aside. They have made friends, not enemies. They are nice people, and it is a wonderful gift to have parents who are examples of how to live life,” she said.
Ms. Newman notes the life challenges her parents have faced, but in terms of their relationship, she says, “Life has been easy for them. They came together as partners, trusted and supported each other. There were never lines between them, and our family has seen that trust and bond,” she said.
So, to review: Two poor kids from Springfield fall in love, rebound from the Depression, take the battering of two wars, build successful career and family lives, sustain their moral center through major societal value shifts, and continue to be modest, grateful people.
Sounds like Tom Brokaw had it right.