Published May 8, 2022

Upside Down Under: Happy Birthday Jim Hillestad…

Written by
Marvin Baker
| The Dakotan
In the opinion of Marvin Baker
Marvin Baker
In the opinion of Marvin Baker
Marvin Baker

There was a photograph in last week’s Kenmare News showing local man Jim Hillestad with his son Kelly and daughter Terri at his birthday party. That’s not so unusual, but what is unusual is that Jim turned 102 in late April.

Kelly lives with his dad in Kenmare while Terri flew in from Australia to attend this special event at the Kenmare Senior Citizen Center.

According to the North Dakota Department of Commerce, there are 310 North Dakota residents who are 100 or older, that’s up about about 100 people since the last census in 2010. So it’s true, people are living longer and healthier.

Jim has said his secret is that he keeps moving. And moving he does. He lives about three blocks from the Kenmare post office and walks downtown almost every day with the aid of his walker. Some days he’ll sit in front of the south facing post office and just observe downtown. Other days he’ll be sitting in front of the bank, also facing south.

He often greets people who are taking care of business downtown and cars will drive by and wave at him as he enjoys the morning sunshine.

Up until about three years ago, Jim was driving his black, Ford Ranger around town. His eye sight deteriorated to a point in which he was no longer able to drive, but that didn’t stop him from making his daily pilgrimage downtown.

Jim is also a World War II veteran, and he has quite a story. He served in Burma, now Myanmar during the war against the Japanese. Although radar had been around since 1935, Jim was one of the first American Soldiers in the war to become familiar with radar.

Although it was a British invention, the American military was provided the technology and the Allies used it for a variety of reasons.

But according to Jim, there was a natural phenomenon, not the war that was causing American fatalities, which sought the need for radar. It was often foggy and planes would take off from an airstrip not knowing exactly where nearby mountains were located. When radar was implemented, it all but stopped planes crashing into the sides of mountains.

Jim said in an interview that when his squad got the mission to set up the first radar station in Burma, little was known about it. But he was a prairie boy and his superiors knew if anyone could get it assembled correctly, it would be him.

He has told us other stories about the war including how he and some other men had to hide so a movement of Japanese troops wouldn’t find them, as well as how they cannibalized vehicles and machinery to keep it going when supply lines were cut off.

Before the war, Jim was involved with the Civilian Conservation Corps. That was the program that Franklin Roosevelt implemented during the Great Depression to put people back to work during and after the depression building public infrastructure.

Just think about that for a moment. We tend to lose the details of events like this through the transition of time, but Jim was a teenager during the Great Depression and lived through that dark time in American history, as well as the war less than a decade later.

When he came home from the war, he transported cattle and later became an antique dealer. He spent many years doing that and only recently sold his business not much more than five years ago.

But one thing Jim told me during an interview stands out, and it didn’t have anything to do with the war or antiques. When he was a young child of 5 years old, he still remembers visiting the neighbor’s house to look at a new contraption that would grab music right out of the air.

It was one of the first radios in northwest North Dakota and the radio station was CHAB in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, which was the only one available, having gone on the air just three years prior in 1922.

Jim’s had a good life and has had success as a civilian and as a soldier. He lost his wife Sylvia, however, in recent years and has told stories about the couple dating back in the 1930s before they were married.

But perhaps most importantly, Jim has been named Grand Marshall of the Kenmare Quasquicentennial - 125th Anniversary celebration on July 8, 9 and 10. It will be a big day for him and it is well deserved.

Happy Birthday Jim Hillestad! Here’s to many more.

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