One of Howard Gustafson’s earliest memories is standing at a parade, waving an American flag and calling out, “Down with the Kaiser!” It was World War I. One of his last memories was planning his 107th birthday.
In between those memories spanning a century was a lot of living — from plowing farm fields with horses as a young man to learning how to take selfies at his 100th birthday party. A member of the Greatest Generation, he survived the Great Depression and served in World War II. Almost to the end, he kept dancing.
Gustafson died in his sleep at his apartment in assisted living in Inver Grove Heights on May 5 — just 43 days before yet another birthday. He was 106.
Susan Harold, one of Gustafson’s two daughters, thinks she knows why their dad lived so long.
“He had such a zest for life,” she says.
Howard Gustafson, pictured here in his youth, died on May 5, 2022, shortly before turning 107. (Molly Guthrey / Pioneer Press)
Gustafson was born at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul on June 17, 1915. He was born during World War I — although the United States would not join the war until later. Woodrow Wilson was president, American women were fighting for their right to vote and the movies were still silent. Sirloin steak cost 18 cents a pound, a newspaper was a penny and an average house was priced at about $3,200, according to federal records.
His mother was a Norwegian immigrant; his father, a postal clerk, was Swedish by heritage. The couple’s sons, Howard and his younger brother, Oscar, were both healthy and athletic, with Oscar excelling at tennis and Howard enjoying swimming, fishing and golf. Growing up on the south end of Highland Park, Gustafson got a job at a bakery when he was 13, earning 35 cents per hour after school and on weekends.
After graduating from Central High School in 1932 — back in an era when boys wore suits and ties to school — Gustafson attended Macalester College, where he graduated cum laude in 1936 with a degree in biology.
He mixed his studies with hard labor, helping out on a relative’s farm in North Branch in the summers.
“All work by hand, and they used horses,” said Vern Anderson, a son-in-law, in a message to the Pioneer Press. “Tough due to the Depression and great drought of the ’30s.”
Howard Gustafson served in World War II as a medical lab tech, stationed in South Wales. (Courtesy photo)
Gustafson was 26 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the United States declared war. Because of his biology background, Gustafson served as a medical lab technician during World War II, stationed in South Wales.
Back home after the war, Gustafson followed his father’s example and got a job with the U.S. Postal Service in 1946. The postal clerk met his wife, Norma, at a dance class; they wed in 1951. The couple bought a house in South St. Paul in 1954, where they raised their two daughters, Jan and Susan. His daughter, Jan Anderson, remembers how their dad flooded the backyard in the winter so his daughters could ice skate; sometimes, he joined the kids in sledding down the hill in their yard.
After Norma died in 2004, Gustafson adapted to carry on without his wife of 53 years.
“I’ve had to become more social,” he told the Pioneer Press in 2015 at his 100th birthday party. “I’ll talk to anybody.”
Turning 100: Read the Pioneer Press coverage from Howard Gustafson’s 100th birthday party in 2015.
Having retired in 1974, Gustafson kept busy, not only mowing his own lawn and cleaning his own house, but also helping neighbors clear their snow and volunteering at his church. His step was always filled with pep.
“He was known as the dancing usher,” says Anderson.
He was often asked about his secret to such successful aging.
He often gave this answer:
“Oatmeal,” Anderson recalls with a laugh.
His version of finally slowing down was not typical.
“He bought a self-propelled lawn mower after he turned 100,” Anderson says. “It was his gift to himself.”
Until then, Gustafson had used a push mower.
Howard Gustafson attempted to take his first selfie, on the phone of and with help from daughter Susan Harold, at his 100th birthday party at Clark-Grace United Church of Christ in South St. Paul on Sunday, June 21, 2015. (Molly Guthrey / Pioneer Press)
When he moved to assisted living at age 102, he did so independently.
“He drove himself there,” Harold says.
(The car stayed parked after that, and he eventually gave it to a grandchild.)
Gustafson didn’t enjoy the isolation that came with the pandemic — the second one he lived through, although he did not recall the first — so he was excited for his upcoming June birthday party.
How could such a long life seem cut short?
Maybe it’s because his zest for it never aged.
Gustafson will be buried next to his wife, in a service with full military honors, at Fort Snelling National Cemetery on Friday.
Besides his daughters and two son-in-laws, he is survived by four grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
To honor Gustafson’s love of gardening and dancing, his family suggests donations in his name to Como Friends, a nonprofit that supports Como Park Zoo and Conservatory (Comofriends.org), or to Keane Sense of Rhythm, a nonprofit tap dance studio in St. Paul (Tapcompany.org).
Howard Gustafson at his church during his 100th birthday party in 2015 in South St. Paul.
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