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Ft. Mitchell Man Reflects on Life at Age 104

Ernie Heinisch recently celebrated his 104th birthday.

The Ft. Mitchell man said that he has seen a lot of change in his century-plus on Earth.

A simpler time

Heinisch, born Aug. 23, 1917, grew up along the Ohio River in Vanceburg, Kentucky, about 90 miles east of Cincinnati. His mom and dad took him home via a horse and buggy.

“The thing that I have changed the most is people’s attitude,” he said. “It hasn’t been for the better. When I was growing up, things were very simple. Living simply, you had a different attitude.”

People were more kind, he said. They took time to not only check in on their neighbors, but also lend a helping hand. People also lived more humbly, according to Heinisch.

“Families were closer and would do anything for each other,” Heinisch, who was born the second of seven children, said.

Heinisch knows very well the sacrifices families gladly made for each other back then. After losing their mother when she was just 42 years old, he and his older brother helped their father care for the younger siblings.

“We didn’t want to be split up,” he said. “We shared homemaking duties and shared our money until the youngest was grown and out of the house.”

It was all worth it, he said. They stayed close, and Jim, the youngest, went on to have a successful career as vice president of Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.

Heinisch had a long successful career himself. He worked many years for a finance company and then moved to Northern Kentucky where he worked for Frisch’s Restaurants as a store manager.

“I loved my time with Frisch’s,” he said. “I really enjoyed the people I worked with and those I served as customers. I love people.”

He was with them until he retired in his 60s. Heinisch held other jobs after Frisch’s, one of which was at the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) in his 80s.

But for the love of money

“When I was in high school, I worked a job for 25 cents an hour, that was the minimum wage and it was OK,” he said. “People are more eager for money now. It’s all they think about. People’s attitude toward money has really changed.”

Sitting at the Erlanger McDonald’s on a Monday afternoon sipping his coffee, his third for the day, Heinisch looks a little pale with nostalgia.

“Things aren’t the same today,” he said, as the restaurant was honoring him as a regular customer. “People lived strong in their faith back then too. Today, people’s attitude toward religion has gone sour,” he said. “I believe in God. Faith is important.”

Politics has changed quite a bit too, according to Heinisch. “When I was younger, your politicians worked for you. They were all about serving and helping people. Now, our politicians are more for money and not so much willing to help others.”

Things were, of course more affordable “back then,” Heinisch said.

Movies were just 25 cents.

“I loved the movie theater,” he said. “They were silent movies back then. The scenes on the big screen would be accompanied by live piano and drums! My favorite were the cowboy shows. I really enjoyed Tex Ritter.”

Heinisch first car was a ’32 Ford. He and his brother bought it together for $75. His driver’s license, purchased when he was 14, was just 25 cents.

Some things are the same

Some things, however, have remained. Like war.

Heinisch and his three older brothers served during World War II. He smiles with pride, his long thin fingers tightening around his McDonald’s coffee cup. He spent four years in the Army and said he is proud to have served his country and defend the freedom of others.

Another familiar, but not so pleasant part of life has reared its ugly head again in Heinisch’ lifetime, a pandemic.

Not too soon after his birth, the Spanish Flu broke out. One of the deadliest pandemics in human history, it lasted until 1920 and took the lives of about 50 million people.

Heinisch, being just a baby at the time, doesn’t remember much about it.

He does, however, have vivid memories of the polio epidemic, which hit its peak in the 1940s and 1950s.

“One of my friends got it and died,” he said. Polio paralyzed or killed more than half a million people worldwide every year during its peak.

Again, people’s attitude has changed drastically, according to Heinisch.

“Back in those days, people’s attitude toward the vaccine was completely different,” he said. “More people were wiling to take it than now. It’s ridiculous in my opinion that you would not take it.”

The love of a good woman

Heinisch said one thing that has prevailed in his life is love, namely, the love of a good woman.

He and his first wife were married 50 years before she died. In his 80s, while working at CVG he met Betty.

“I remember my supervisor came to me and said, ‘This lady is going to start working with you. You treat her nice, OK?’ I saw her coming down the walkway. She was so pretty. I smiled and told my supervisor, ‘OK.’ And I kept my promise. I’m still treating her nice. That’s the secret to happiness.”

Betty is 94. She and Heinisch live independently and stay active.

‘Just livin’’

Heinisch said he spends his days, “Just livin'.”

He helps Betty around the house and frequents McDonald’s for coffee. He drinks three cups a day.

He said he for him there’s no “real secret” to long life.

“I did quit drinking when I was 50 and I’ve never smoked,” he said. “I don’t worry about things. That’s about it. Truthfully, I’m not sure why I am here, but I’m here.”

Written by Melissa Reinert, RCN contributor

Photo: Ernie Heinish (RCN)