Eyewitness to 100 years of change
Woman reflects on century of life
March 29, 2023
Hope Burns sits in her living room, trim, matter-of-fact, steady gaze. A visitor might guess she was 80.
Her manufactured home is tastefully decorated, as is her yard outside, her Chrysler neatly parked in the carport.
Looks can be deceiving, though. Burns will celebrate her 100th birthday April 7.
Somewhat deceiving, also, is her low-key demeanor. Burns' life, like many who reach the century mark, includes some noteworthy accomplishments.
She never went to college, but she supervised the management of Portland Public Schools' retirement program for 20 years.
She was a Rosie the Riveter defense worker during World War II.
After retiring, she created a Portland housing development, pretty much on her own.
But first things first.
Burns was born April 7, 1923, on a ranch operated by her Scottish grandfather, four miles outside Hecla, S.D., a short distance south of the North Dakota border.
"My grandfather was hired by a couple of brothers in New York who had many business interests," Burns said. "He came over here as an expert on sheep, but he ended up raising the Aberdeen Angus cattle, and he held the international championship for that.
"It took him five years to get Grandma and his seven children to the United States. And my father was the first one born in the U.S."
She and her two siblings grew up in the area. She particularly recalls doing "a lot of swimming" in the James River, or as she puts it, the "Jim River."
"I actually learned to swim in a horse tank," she said. "My grandfather had a 180-gallon tank and that's where we learned to swim."
During their high school years, they lived in town, closer to the school, she said. Burns graduated in 1940 and the following year she moved to Portland with a friend to join the war effort.
"I came to Oregon with another girl because wherever there was war industry, we knew there was a job," she recalled.
She became a welder – "Navy-certified."
"After I started welding I would hear the 'ding ding ding' of a crane coming in and I had to quickly move to the side because there was a load of steel coming in. And so I thought that would be a good job. So I went to see the rigging foreman. And I became a crane operator. And that's what I did for the rest of the war."
Then the war ended.
"The young men came back and we put our dresses on and went back to the kitchen," Burns said.
She worked a variety of jobs – "in a soda fountain for a while and then I went to work at Good Samaritan Hospital, doing billing for them."
Actually, she said, it took a while for Oregon to grow on her.
"I didn't really like it here at all, because it rained," Burns said. "Everyone said, 'Stay one year, and you'll always come back.'"
"I went back to the Midwest four times and I came back to Oregon."
Her first move east was to Minnesota, where her parents had moved, to Austin, where a Hormel meatpacking plant was located.
When she returned, in 1947, she met a Portland police officer, Stewart Morris. They were married the next year and had one son.
"I lost him when he was 23," Burns said.
She and Morris were married for 20 years.
In 1968, she married Bruce Burns, a real estate appraiser in Portland. They were married 30 years before his death.
Over the years she worked in various careers, as a mortgage officer and then, for 20 years, as executive director of the teachers retirement program for the Portland school district.
"If they wanted to retire, I was the one they had to see because I paid their pension," Burns said, smiling.
After she retired, at 65, she developed the 12-residence Heatherbrae subdivision in Portland – "and I built my dream home."
The development included two acres of greenspace, of which she takes particular satisfaction.
Her husband "was a big help," she said, but it was her project. "I'd always been interested in that," she said, noting that she'd worked as a mortgage loan officer.
Burns said she'd been living in a retirement home in Portland, but decided to move to Sweet Home three years ago to be nearer her grandson, who then lived in town.
"I like the feel of Sweet Home," she said. "One thing I like about here is the sun comes out every day."
She enjoys the Senior Center and she really likes it "when I walk into the bank and they call me by my first name. They do the same thing at the service station."
However, she added, the great-grandchildren who "brought me to Sweet Home" aren't living here any more and another grandson who is encouraging her to move to Pleasant Hill, so she said she may take him up on that.
Burns offers one piece of advice to those who want longevity: "Don't smoke."
"My father died at 67 because he started when he was 14," she said.
She said one of the biggest changes she's seen in her 100 years of life has been the role of women in society.
"I think I have seen women making their mark. What has surprised me is that in this latest pandemic that we have had, how many women doctors there seem to be. I didn't realize how many that there had been, but I have seen a lot of them now.
"Women, well, they found out they could do almost anything a man could do."