SIDNEY — Ralph Bornhorst, of Sidney, celebrated his 98th birthday with family at his home on Saturday, Feb. 15.
Bornhorst was born on Feb. 18, 1922, in Sidney, and has resided in the area for most of his life, having grown up on a farm near Anna, west of where the Honda plant currently stands. He was only 7 years old when the stock market crashed, and remembers living through the Great Depression.
“I was from a family of 12, and we lived out on a farm and had plenty of good food, but as kids we hardly knew what a toy was. We ate well, but didn’t have any money to spend,” Bornhorst said. “The big thing is, you didn’t have any money for gas, so you just stayed home.”
He describes having 11 siblings around as a blessing, and that every day was like a picnic.
“I always kid my kids about, they’ll say ‘oh, you should buy this,’ and I’ll say, I’m carrying that depression gene. I don’t want to spend that money,” Bornhorst said.
Bornhorst didn’t graduate from high school, leaving after his sophomore year to helping his father on the farm. He vivdly remembers sitting around the table playing hearts with his siblings when Pearl Harbor was bombed.
“My dad was listening to the radio and all at once, they broke into the program about how Pearl Harbor got bombed. My older brother was in the Army, and he was over in Europe. When we heard the Pearl Harbor thing, we all got real concerned about what he might have to go through. It kind of disturbed us a lot. Me being about draft age, and my younger brother Homer being two years younger, it ended up, it could be three of us in the service before long. Of course, mom and dad were real concerned about that,” Bornhorst said.
He was drafted into World War II in September 1944 at the age of 22.
“I always like to tell the story about how the military was really getting hard up for getting men, and I took my physical in Columbus, and the first doctor that came to me grabbed ahold of my wrist. I thought he was taking my pulse, but all of a sudden he said, ‘you’re warm, we’ll take you’,” Bornhorst said.
Bornhorst served in the Navy for two years, working in the crow’s nest as a surface lookout, scanning the sky and ocean for Japanese ships and planes.
“We were in on the invasion of Iwo Jima, and I watched the invasions like I was watching a movie. Coincidentally, I saw them raising the flag on Mount Suribachi,” Bornhorst said.
He was also in Tokyo Bay for the signing of the peace treaty.
“Really, I saw a lot and did a lot of things,” Bornhorst said.
Bornhorst was honorably discharged from the Navy on May 29, 1946. He hitchhiked back home with a backpack full of his belongings, and when he returned to Shelby County, he went to work at various factories in Sidney, and then in construction. He ended up working for Swanders Elevator, managing the elevator for years until he worked his way up to CEO for 33 years.
Bornhorst likes to joke that he met his wife, Rita, at the baptismal foutain, because she was younger by six days. They grew up together and went to McCartyville schools. Bornhorst remembers that his sixth-grade teacher always sat the two close together. They were married on Oct. 26, 1946.
Bornhorst married his second wife, Madeline, on Oct. 17, 1987, over a year after Rita’s passing in 1986. They met while Bornhorst worked for Swanders and she worked for a seedhouse they purchased from in Rockford.
“I talked to her on the phone a lot, and of course we never met face-to-face until after Rita died. I went to a singles dance. My friend from McCartyville had met her before and said he knew me, and introduced me to her. With us having something in common with the elevator and so forth, that’s how that all got started. She was surprised when she first met me, she said, talking on the phone with me all the time, she thought I was a short chubby guy with my feet on the desk, smoking a cigar,” Bornhorst said.
Madeline passed away in March 2019. Bornhorst says with his age, he would be unable to live on his own, but because most of his eight children live close, they take turns coming to the house each night, bringing him a hot meal and helping him with errands. He is an active member of the Sidney Kiwanis Club and has been for the past 30 years. He’s also fond of jigsaw puzzles, and sang in Sacred Heart of Jesus Church’s choir in McCartyville for 60 years. After retiring from working at Swanders, Bornhorst picked up guitar and joined a group that played at Fairhaven and at a nursing home in Minster once a month for 15 years.
Bornhorst served on the Anna School Board for over a decade, and served on the Shelby County School Board during the same time. He also served on the Upper Valley JVS School Board for six years.
“If I remember right, one of my good customers at the elevator suggested I run for school board, so I did,” Bornhorst said. “I don’t know how I found time for all of that, but I did. I guess when I retired, I couldn’t just sit in a chair, I had to do something.”
After retiring in 1965, he also sold real estate for Emerson Wagner Realty for some time.
“I look back, and I can’t believe I did all these different things. I guess I had to do something to keep out of foolishness,” Bornhorst said.
Being involved in so much, Bornhorst feels well-connected to the community. When he goes shopping at Kroger, he always runs into someone he knows. He can’t believe he’s still up and in good health at 98.
“I tell different people, I’m 98 going for 100, or I’ll die trying,” Bornhorst said. “I don’t know why the Lord wants me to hang around this long, but everything seems to be real good.”
Reach the writer at 937-538-4825.