EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of a two-part series on the incredible life of Lee Chenoweth, a self-professed “snowbird” who makes an annual visit from his home in Wisconsin to Eufaula to spend time with his Alabama friends, playing golf on a daily basis and keeping fit as he nears his 99th birthday.
Lee Chenoweth excuses his mother for causing him to become restless, even at the age of just 3.
“My parents were always busy, so my mother would put a rope around me and tie me to a tree so I would stay nearby,” he said.
To avoid being restrained, a young Lee would slither out of his clothes. He was bored, after all. Once the rope was discarded along with the clothes, Lee would take off.
“My whole life, I never wanted to be restrained again,” he said.
On July 25, Chenoweth will turn 99. While he maintains his residence in Blair, Wisconsin, he and his wife of almost 65 years – Bonnie – make an annual trek south to Eufaula where they live for about two months each winter as self-professed “snowbirds.” Relaxing in the much-warmer climate of Southeast Alabama hardly slows down Chenoweth.
Born in 1919, Chenoweth’s most recent checkup had the doctor telling him all of his “working tools were normal.” Even while in Eufaula – he and Bonnie stay at Lakepoint State Park – he visits the Community Center’s fitness area daily, walks for 40 minutes, exercises and plays golf at the Country Club of Alabama.
“I eat two meals a day; a light breakfast and a light evening meal,” he said, adding, “At 4 o’clock, I have a glass of red wine to set it up.”
Before returning to Wisconsin, Chenoweth sat down with the Tribune and told his life story of overcoming obstacles, many self-inflicted and others cast upon him. It is a life that takes him from a restrained child, to a free hobo-life of hopping freight trains around the country, and eventually into the throes of World War II.
For the last 20 years, Lee and Bonnie have made Lakepoint their annual visit to the south. They stopped once upon a return from Florida and have not visited Florida since, choosing instead the Lake Eufaula area.
Originally, they enjoyed playing golf at the state park’s course, but that was eventually closed.
Lee calls Bonnie “only 88,” as she is 10 years his junior. A “Tennessee gal,” Bonnie is a former home economics teacher who understands food and counts calories for the couple.
As a high school sophomore, Lee’s mother began getting hardening of her arteries and was never the same. Lee had two younger sisters, and with his father in the milling business, Lee’s mother became mentally incapable of taking care of the children, and got to where she really didn’t know them. They had a lady take care of the house, but their father never did relate well to his children.
Lee’s mother was eventually admitted to a county home.
“I was never an athlete; wasn’t a good pitcher, wasn’t a good basketball player,” Lee said. “My mother had been a class valedictorian. My father had never really been a people person. He was a business man with an eighth-grade education.
“My mother wanted me to be an intellectual. She had been the class valedictorian. She always had me fixed up with books. She had been very driven.”
Lee was an average student, so, after graduating high school and with no guidance, he hopped on board a freight train to visit a classmate in Chicago, almost 300 miles from home. Hiding behind the coal car and dodging steam all the way, Lee made it to Chicago. From there, he boarded another train to Minneapolis. He would make it to Yellowstone National Park by “bumming” a ride on a bread truck.
“When I got off, the driver gave me some bread,” Lee recalled. “All night there were bears circling because they could smell the bread. I survived the night without being part of the bears’ menu.”
Soon, Lee was on the move again, catching a ride in a rumble seat with a couple that had just been married. He bummed another ride with a Catholic priest. All of this was within a month.
“My father finally sent me to the University of Wisconsin at Madison,” Lee said. “But there, I was with no guidance whatsoever. I was not a student. During the second semester, there was a beer deal with the gang. Someone pulled the fire alarm and I was arrested. I didn’t do it, but I was with them so they hauled me down to the jail. The next morning, about two dozen of us had to see a judge. Some said ‘not guilty.’ I was with them so I figured I was guilty. A couple of weeks go by and here comes by Dad to bail me out. I’m 19 and I still couldn’t stand the thought of a rope around me. I hopped a freight train again, this time planning to head south to New Orleans. I was gonna work on a boat.”
Lee got to Illinois and worked on a farm. He didn’t like that so he headed west, working in a wheat field in Nebraska.
“There was no money during the Depression,” Lee said. “There was nothing. I’d knock on doors and ask people if they could spare something to eat. I lived like a hobo under a bridge in Kansas City. I learned not to knock on the door of the big houses. Go to the blue-collar house. Human nature kicked in with those people.
“I can’t remember ever being afraid. I remember some difficult situations, but I was never afraid.”
Lee got a job chopping barley in South Dakota. Eventually, he returned to Blair, where his father tried again to set his son on a career path of education, sending him to college in La Crosse.
“I ran into the same problem,” Lee said. “I knew my stuff, but when it came to doing my school work, I guess that’s when I flunked out.”
Now, 20, Lee returned to South Dakota to harvest the fields. That lasted just a short while, and he found himself back in Blair with his “gang.”
“There were openings for military police,” he said. “We all applied. I made it. I didn’t know the first thing about what we were doing. This was right before World War II. We were sent down to Louisiana for a year’s training. I learned how to be a policeman with a .45 (caliber pistol). I was the last man on the totem pole because they had me cleaning latrines and shining officers’ shoes. I took great pride in what I was doing. There was no future, but there was no anger, no stress and no goal.”
Lee returned to Blair in 1940 doing local police duty. His chuckles at the thought of himself, a hobo by trade, enforcing the law in his hometown.
Part Two of the Lee Chenoweth story details his time in World War II, the deplorable conditions he withstood and the injuries he overcame before finally settling back into a life in Wisconsin, and at least for a couple of months each year, in Eufaula.