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Hebron ‘icon’ turns 100 on Wednesday

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(Sarah Nader – snader@shawmedia.com)
Ethel Popenhagen celebrates her 100th birthday during a potluck luncheon in her honor Sunday at the United Methodist Church in Hebron.

HEBRON – Ethel Popenhagen should be back on her porch swing this spring.

The longtime Hebron resident, who is turning 100 on Wednesday, has been an icon in the community since her family moved to the small northern Illinois town when she was 13 years old, several friends and neighbors said.

It seemed as if the whole community turned out for her birthday party Sunday at the Hebron United Methodist Church, said one of her daughters, Bonnie Seeberg of Pardeeville, Wis.

“We’ve had bank people. We’ve had post office people. We’ve had school people,” Seeberg said looking at her mother while yet another person leaned down to speak into Popenhagen’s good ear.

Popenhagen has attended all the music recitals, said Thomas Tufo, a piano and voice instructor in Hebron.

She read books to the children in school and would play basketball with them, said Grace Eskridge, who has lived in Hebron for 22 years.

She’s been a member of the American Legion Auxiliary for more than 80 years, Seeberg said. She’s also been an active member of Hebron United Methodist Church since 1927.

Until about four years ago, Popenhagen attended every sporting event in the small community, too. It was a tradition that started when Popenhagen was 62 and too young to qualify for free entry.

She persuaded the school to lower the age so that she could drive a group of her friends – all of them 65 or older – to the games. (Before her retirement at 62, Popenhagen had learned how to drive during her two weeks of vacation from her job at the Admiral Corp. factory in Harvard.)

“Every single thing there was, she would be there watching the kids and cheering them on,” Seeberg said. “She was so active up at the school.”

One year, Alden-Hebron High School dedicated its yearbook to Popenhagen.

While she is known for her quick and sassy comebacks, she struck a serious note when the potluck came to an end.

“I’m grateful that I am still able to enjoy life to a certain degree,” she said. “It seems as if you manage to disregard some of the things that happen and think of them as slight obstacles along the way.

“I never dreamed that I would make it to now, that I would be in my church and the church fixed as beautiful.”

Popenhagen isn’t as active as she used to be, and she’s temporarily living at the Golden Years of Walworth, Wis., but her family expects her back in her 1920 mail-order Sears, Roebuck and Co. home, sitting on her porch swing.

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