An electronic keyboard rests behind the easy chair in Orville Speten's Wilton home. The 100-year-old who lives alone finds great joy in tickling the ivories and says he acquired his musical talents from his father, Henry.
“My dad would play -- he was a good fiddle player,” said the self-taught musician, who also is skilled at playing the piano, organ, harpsichord, accordion, harmonica and guitar.
Speten, who plays by ear, enjoys performing at family gatherings, church and the local bar. He spent about five years, beginning in 2012, playing the piano for residents of several long-term care facilities in Bismarck-Mandan.
The centenarian, whose current instrument of choice is the keyboard thanks to its portability and ease of play, acknowledged it is becoming more difficult to play in public due to his age.
While Speten, whose motto is “use it or lose it,” is showing signs of slowing down, he remains fit as a fiddle, according to his second-youngest child, Lynette Clausen, of Wilton.
“He's so spry that we have a hard time remembering he's 100,” she said. “He keeps us on our toes, man.”
Raising a family
Speten was born Nov. 23, 1919, on a farm a few miles east of Wilton. He received an eighth-grade education by attending Ecklund School No. 4, then made a living farming and working at the grocery store he opened with his brother, Rudy.
“Holy cripe, (I) worked night and day,” he said. “I milked hundreds and hundreds of cows by hand.”
In 1943, he married Iva, a farm girl who lived southeast of town.
“Her dad was very interested I date his daughter, I think,” Speten said.
The couple put down roots in their hometown and raised six children -- Jim, Karen, Gary, Carol, Lynette and Rod, the majority of whom still live in the area.
Clausen said she has fond memories of Saturday nights during her childhood.
“Saturday nights, Dad would take a shower and we would have a bath and that's when I remember getting to sit on his lap,” she said. “And then we'd get to go down to the cafe and get an ice cream cone. And watching Lawrence Welk and 'Bonanza' and 'The Wonderful World of Disney.'”
Speten enjoyed bowling in his younger days and in April 1963 bowled a perfect game, scoring 300 at the alley in Wing. He takes great pride in this achievement.
The Spetens were nearing their 70th wedding anniversary when Iva died in 2013.
A man of faith
Speten is a lifelong member of Sunne Lutheran Church in rural Wilton, where he shares special music several times a year with the congregation. His maternal grandparents, Erick and Ingeborg Backman, are charter members of the church.
“My mother (Hannah) delivered grub to her folks and brothers building on the church -- with a buggy, of course,” Speten said, noting he's proud of all the work his loved ones did to form Sunne.
Speten, who has developed a friendly rivalry with 102-year-old Ervin Jose, the oldest member of the church, recalls one of his most recent performances at Sunne.
“Oh give me a home where the buffaloes roam, where the deer and the pheasant's at play. Where seldom is heard any swearing word and the people are happy all day,” Speten said in a sing-song voice.
“I sang that on the piano; they got a big bang out of that,” he said.
The pianist said “Over the Waves” is his favorite song to play because it is a long waltz that uses all the keys.
Living to 100
The city of Wilton proclaimed Nov. 23, 2019, “Orville Speten Day” in honor of its longest-living resident. The date marked Speten's 100th birthday. The proclamation outlined the numerous roles he played over the years to serve his community, including city commissioner and fire chief.
Keeping busy is the secret to making it to 100 years of age, according to the well-loved Wilton resident.
“I worked a long time … I've been too damn busy to go, which I think is true,” he said. “One thing I'm concerned about -- that one of my kids dies before I do.”
Speten, at the age of 95, was driving a tractor solo, pulling a disc harrow in an effort to help his son, Gary, farm. Two years ago, he drove the equipment with a family member riding shotgun.
The retired farmer lives alone and recently wrote a stanza about the experience.
“I live all alone in the big white house I can call my own,” he said. “The house is white and the roof is black and I live right next to the Soo Line track.”
The centenarian anticipates daily visits from one of his three daughters or his daughter-in-law, Kathy.
“We take turns and we're down here every evening to have supper with him because he doesn't want to eat anymore,” Clausen said. “He's fine during the day and takes his naps. After the 5:30 evening news, that's when he likes us to be here. We visit for a couple hours and then he's good.”
Speten keeps his mind sharp by playing cards, including solitaire, and continues to watch the stock market.
Celebrating Father's Day
Speten, who has 12 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren, said family means everything to him and is the reason he's still alive.
Clausen used the following words to describe her dad: strong, determined, stubborn -- he's Swede, after all, she noted -- hardworking, self-sufficient and very giving.
“He loves little kids,” she said. “He hands dollars out to any little kid on the street and in church and wherever else he is. Any time the great-grandkids come, they get a dollar.”
Clausen said it's difficult to put into words what her dad means to her, and to the entire family.
“Just like he said -- 'everything,'” she said. “We're very fortunate; we all know that too.”
Family members who live in the area plan to take turns visiting Speten at his home on Father's Day, to ensure everyone's safety during the coronavirus pandemic. Because he is hard of hearing, one-on-one visits tend to work best anyway, Clausen said.
Speten believes people should have fun while they are living. He also offered the following advice: “I'm not a mañana guy. Mañana is not for me. Tomorrow is not for me. Do today, don't wait for tomorrow.”
Reach Cheryl McCormack at Cheryl.McCormack@bismarcktribune.com
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