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Centenarian still going strong

Bill Hawkins, railroader, diplomat and farmer, turns 100 this month


Union County farmer Bill Hawkins, who will turn 100 this month, stands by his 1913 Aultman Taylor steam tractor built in Mansfield, Ohio. "It's just five years older than I am," Hawkins said.

In some cultures, people bless one another with the wish “May you live a hundred years,” and that’s exactly what Union County farmer Bill Hawkins intends to do.

Hawkins turns 100 years old this month, and during that generous span of time, he’s received a good education, married his equal, fathered three and traveled and worked internationally. For the last 76 years of that span, he’s been sharing life with his wife, Camille, 97, someone Hawkins says “has the best disposition of any woman I’ve been acquainted with.”

Hawkins was born near Fruitdale Lane in La Grande in January 1918

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In some cultures, people bless one another with the wish “May you live a hundred years,” and that’s exactly what Union County farmer Bill Hawkins intends to do.

Hawkins turns 100 years old this month, and during that generous span of time, he’s received a good education, married his equal, fathered three and traveled and worked internationally. For the last 76 years of that span, he’s been sharing life with his wife, Camille, 97, someone Hawkins says “has the best disposition of any woman I’ve been acquainted with.”

Hawkins was born near Fruitdale Lane in La Grande in January 1918 to William M. and Ann Etta Hawkins. He moved onto the Hawkins farm near Union when he was 7 or 8 years old and attended Union schools until his junior year in high school. Then he transferred to La Grande High School and graduated in 1935.

After high school, Hawkins attended what was then Eastern Oregon Normal School in La Grande for a quarter semester, and then, he said, “I went on a two-year mission in England for the Mormon church from March 1936 to March 1938.”

After his release from the mission work, Hawkins toured several countries in Europe. While crossing through Austria, “I heard Adolf Hitler speak using a megaphone to a crowd from a rooftop of some building in a city square,” Hawkins said.

“He had a jam-packed crowd assembled in the square below and every now and then, the people cried out, ‘Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!’” Hawkins recalled. “It was 1938, and Hitler hadn’t quite accomplished the chancellorship, but he was on the way. I didn’t know German, but you could just feel the crowd responding to him. Apparently, he was a very good speaker.”

At that age, Hawkins said, he wasn’t interested in politics, and he avoided engaging in any political conversations while he was touring Europe. When he returned home, he attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, from 1938 to 1941. There at the library, he met Camille, a student from Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. They married on April 6, 1941, and graduated together from BYU that spring.

Hawkins received a degree in economics and political science, and he aspired to go on to law school, but instead he went to work as a fireman with the Union Pacific Railroad on June 30, 1941. Two and a half years later, he was promoted to locomotive engineer.

“During World War II, railroaders, firemen and enginemen were very essential and not usually called in on the draft because they didn’t take technical people, by and large, in the draft,” Hawkins said. “If you got fired from the job, then you got drafted right away.”

In 1944, in the midst of the war, Hawkins was working in and out of Huntington. By mutual agreement, Camille went on to attend Oregon State University in Corvallis. She took their son, Byron, with her.

“We just didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “So Camille spent a year at Oregon State and got her master’s degree (in foods and nutrition) on the assumption that if I were called for the draft and got an A-1 rating into the Army and didn’t come back, then she would have something to fall back on.”

It was a year-long absence, but they got through it. When the war ended, Hawkins took a leave of absence from the railroad and his family relocated to Portland where he had been elected to represent the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, a railroad union.

See complete story in Monday's Observer