As usual, Ray McCallop cooked his own breakfast Wednesday morning before driving about 10 miles east to his indoor walking venue.
After that, “usual” vanished.
He’d barely settled on a small couch to await longtime walking buddies inside Independence Center when people began handing him birthday cards. Cameras flashed. A sheet cake and giant helium balloon appeared. Gifts multiplied on the floor by his feet.
One after another, people wrapped him in hugs.
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“What are you going to do with the rest of the day?” someone asked in the midst of the hubbub.
“After you get to 98, there isn’t much you can do,” quipped McCallop, a retired rock mine laborer who grew up in a small Kansas community that vanished long ago.
Though an increasing number of Americans are reaching their upper 90s or even surpassing 100 these days, McCallop stands out, his friends say.
He needs no medications or walking assistance. His mind remains sharp. Seemingly always happy, he still can make a stranger feel like his good buddy in a matter of minutes. He’s an inspiration to other walkers, many of them 20 or 25 years his junior.
“He’s warm, kind and funny,” said Oweda Crutchfield, an Independence resident who met McCallop about five years ago. “He has a wonderful sense of humanity, and he’s religious.”
You’d never know he’s 98, she added.
People at the motor vehicle office didn’t believe it either when the Kansas City resident recently renewed his driver’s license.
“I don’t think I’ll get close to 98,” Eddie Mynatt said as he offered McCallop a handshake and congratulations.
“All you got to do is keep getting up,” McCallop said, grinning.
Another walker asked him to open the present she’d brought. He tore back the tissue paper and revealed a handmade red, white and gold Chiefs hat. Onto his head it went.
“Now I look younger, don’t I?” he said. “Nobody wants to look old. Yep. Thank you. Thank you.”
The oldest among more than 400 regular walkers at the Independence Center, McCallop has grown used to being around younger people everywhere he goes, from family gatherings to church meetings. He credits his longevity to healthy living, good genes and a blessed life.
“My mama, she was always religious,” he said. “She always figured the Lord was going to make a way for us, and he did.”
He gave some credit to his wife, too. She’s only 89.
“Well, I’m married to a young woman, so that makes a difference. I told her, your next birthday you are going to have to straighten up. I can’t be putting up with no old woman. Hey hey hey. Yep.”
Born in 1919, McCallop grew up the third oldest of six children on a farm of about 20 acres near Holliday, once a small community along the railroad tracks west of present-day Lake Quivira. It had a railroad depot, stores, churches and two schools, one for whites and one for blacks, according to county historical society records.
The McCallops drew their water from a well. They raised vegetables, slaughtered their own hogs and kept a cow for milk. They churned butter. Their mother, Lula, canned tomatoes and other garden produce. When they ran short on pork, they hunted. Rabbits, squirrels, opossums, raccoons. Sometimes they caught fat ground hogs.
“Getting some of those wild meats was a big treat in those days,” McCallop said. “And Mama knew how to smother it down.”
He never went hungry, he said. Always had clothes to wear and a roof over his head.
During the Great Depression, McCallop and his brothers went to work at the Thompson Crushed Rock Co. mine, where they carried heavy rocks that were crushed into railroad bed gravel for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. He remembers his father buying a Model T for $10 so the boys could commute. They’d push it up a hill to the crest, jump in and rumble down the other side, he said. Paid by the amount of rock they moved, not the hour, he earned maybe 50 cents some weeks or perhaps $2 on a good, long day. It was hard work. Every morning he’d wake up sore.
“The railroad used a lot of rock,” he said. “Those big steam engines was heavy. There wasn’t no 18-wheeler trucks up and down the highway. Everything went by railroad.”
After nearly 48 years on the job, McCallop retired. He was 65. He left work on a Friday and started walking the next Monday, said his daughter Gwen Murphy.
For the most part, the McCallops do live long, she said.
Ray McCallop’s mother died at age 95. His father, David McCallop, died a month shy of 98. His two older brothers reached ages 92 and 85. Two of his three younger siblings are in their 90s. Only the baby of the family still awaits that milestone.
“I’ve got a wonderful daddy,” Murphy said. “And to have a daddy for 74 years — not everyone can say that.”
Early in his retirement, McCallop walked in his neighborhood when the weather allowed. Then for many years, he walked at Blue Ridge Mall. After the owners chained it closed to await the wrecking ball, another walker suggested McCallop transfer to Independence Center. That’s what others planned to do.
He didn’t want to go. Too far.
These days, he’s glad he changed his mind.
Though he used to walk five days a week, he now goes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He usually completes two laps around the upper level, rests a bit, walks another lap and rests again.
Recently, he started reminding friend Gloria Carter that he had a big day coming up. Little did he know that many of the walkers already had Jan. 11 circled on their calendars.
He arrived Wednesday expecting perhaps a few “Happy birthday!” salutations.
“I’ve had birthdays before,” he said. “Just another day. Not a happy birthday like this one.”
It was a very good morning, his daughter agreed.
“He’ll talk about this the rest of his life,” she said.