Before running water, electricity, radio or television, Estill Thomas had happiness.
After 100 years and a lifetime of experience that span across the north and south poles, Thomas — who last week celebrated his 100th birthday — says happiness has kept him alive.
Thomas was born on Oct. 15, 1912, in Lockport, joining four brothers and three sisters. His father emigrated from Syria to France and finally to the United States with his three brothers in Louisville. Estill’s father peddled groceries loaded on a huckster wagon filled with vegetables, eggs and chickens. He found the booming river town of Lockport to be the best place for a future and a family.
“Everything was done by river then,” Thomas said. “There were always tugboats, steamboats and traffic on the river between Fallis, Lockport and Monterrey. We had groceries, dry goods and we even sold coffins.”
Thomas would build fires for his mother when she washed the family’s clothes. He and his brothers slept back-to-back to stay warm as the family had one wood burning oven in the house and a wood oven for the kitchen.
At the time, Lockport had one telephone in town.
“We went to bed and were early to rise,” Thomas said. “Everybody lived that way then. One of the first things my brother and I got was a crystal radio. We would share the earplugs and listen to one of only two stations then. It was either Kansas City or a station out of Pittsburgh.”
Thomas finished high school in Eminence where sports came naturally to him. Basketball, football and anything to keep him active interested him. Then he and his siblings would travel between Lockport and Eminence on a daily basis in a Model T Ford.
“I stayed in Eminence sometimes. We would have up to five blow outs a day in the old car,” Thomas said. “Half the time we couldn’t even make it.”
He and his brother listened to big band music then. Thomas listened to artists like Mall Hallett, a violinist and big band leader, along with the ‘Idol of the airwaves’ Jan Garber who had his own band by the age of 21 and was considered a contemporary to Guy Lombardo. Garber performed 1920s dance music.
“My brother Caroll got a job down at Club Madrid in Louisville on Third and Gutherie,” Thomas said. “We were very close and everywhere he went, I went. The downstairs was a bowling alley and the top part of the building was the club. I talked my way into getting hired on and would listen to the music all night long.”
Thomas would eventually travel while working at horseracing tracks selling tickets people would bet on. His work took him from Keeneland to Omaha, Neb. Thomas decided to come home.
“I got a job working with the Army Corps of Engineers all the way from Carrollton to Hidelberg fixing dams and locks. I was so thankful for such a good job,” Thomas said. “I worked up and down the Kentucky River. I was working the day a man came and asked me if I wanted to go to radio school and learn International Morse Code.”
Thomas quickly became proficient at Morse code. He was so proficient that the Air Force quickly moved him to San Antonio, Texas, where he taught cadets how to send and read code, read charts and maps along with a heavy concentration in mathematics. He trained cadets for four years until the end of WWII.
After WWII, Thomas served in the Korean War. Thomas’ journey took an unexpected turn.
“I went to Okinawa. We traveled to Okinawa and the commanders, my captain, decided we should man a communications base in Iceland. I didn’t understand at the time that we were there because of people like the Russians. I ran communications at a strategic airbase.”
The Air Force kept Thomas for 14 months in Iceland. Usually, most things in the town were broke, Thomas said. Phones, radios — everything would go out frequently from the aurora borealis and the interference it caused. The Air Force tried to bribe him with promotions to stay in the outpost.
“I wouldn’t do it,” Thomas said. “You could see steam come up out of the ground and I always said one day the place would blow and then with months of daylight I was ready to come home.”
Thomas came back to Kentucky. He work ed with the Army Corps of Engineers and then retired as a lockmaster after several years. Thomas remembers meeting many affluent and famous people who would escape from day to day life to enjoy recreation on the river. The strongest current throughout his life is happiness.
“I wake up everyday singing,” Thomas said. “I’ve made just as many mistakes as you have and I have escaped death from accidents here in the States to almost getting hit by a truck in Iceland. I am thankful and I must be blessed most people my age are laying in bed unable to move.”
Thomas still drives himself to Dairy Queen in the morning for breakfast. He fondly remembers many of his friends and family that have passed before him and the times of his childhood and early adulthood attending dances in unlikely places like Gratz where he would dance with women to big band music. His disposition is simple.
“I respect everyone. I’ve been happy my entire life — I was never a sad person and I think that is why my life has lasted so long,” Thomas said. “I enjoy humanity and people don’t visit with each other like they used to. I’ve had two pacemakers and my doctor told me he would be ready when I needed my third. Have as much fun as you can and joke and cut up as much as possible.”
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