Neal Bladen of North Fork will celebrate his 100th birthday on April 27. There will be four generations of family celebrating with him. Bladen is not the only 100-year-old in the family, though. Tucked away in a secure storage place is a Model T Ford built in the same year Bladen was born, 1914. Bladen bought the car when he was about 18 years old.
Bladen, still alert with a ready laugh, has only a bit of trouble hearing with the special amplifier he uses. But "1914" is his response when asked the model year of his Model T. He and other family members have driven the car, which still runs, in a number of area parades, including those in North Fork and Raymond.
Born in Boise, Idaho, Bladen has one sibling, a 98-year-old sister, Bettina Kelley, who lives in Laguna Hills. She, too, will be a part of the birthday party for Bladen. Bladen and his late wife Connie, who passed away seven years ago, have three daughters who will also be at the party given in his honor. The party will be held on the day of his birthday at daughter Bonnie's home.
Two of the daughters, Wendy Marshall and Cindy Martin, live on portions of the 50-acre ranch where Bladen built his family a home. They, with their spouses, who are both named David, will attend the party as will daughter, Bonnie, and her husband, Ray Laclergue. Also joining the festivities will be four grandchildren and six great grandchildren, who all live in the area.
"Be grateful," Bladen said. This is the philosophy he lives by according to daughters, Wendy and Bonnie. He taught the daughters that they could do anything they set out to do. "I can do it," was the lesson they both remember being taught as they worked with their dad putting roofs on houses, or installing wood floors or insulation.
During the depression, Bladen ran a gas station with his father in southern California. He met Connie Kaufman and two of the first dates for the couple were a trip to the beach and another to snow ski. On Feb. 13, 1941, he married Connie in Long Beach and the couple honeymooned in Hawaii. While there, they fell in love with the ocean and both learned to surf.
A short time later, the couple returned to Hawaii where Neal worked at Hickam Field. They rented a little house on Waikiki Beach for $50 a month and Connie would surf on that world-famous surfing beach while Neal was at work. But the couple had dreams of someday owning and sailing their own boat and there was only one thing stopping them, they needed more experience.
When offered jobs on a sailboat going to Alaska from Hawaii, Neal hired on as first mate and Connie as the cook. They left Hawaii in Sept., 1941, just months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that led the United States into World War II.
During the war, Neal worked for Lockheed as an engineer. Connie also worked there. But the dream of having and sailing their own sailboat was still alive after the war prompting, the couple to purchase a 35-foot sailboat named "The Holiday." They sailed to Central America and spent three years in and around Panama. They docked their boat at the Panama Yacht Harbor and Neal used his engineering skills while working on the Panama Canal.
The idyllic life of spending a month at a time in a sheltered cove with fresh fish to eat every night came to an end when first daughter, Bonnie, was on the way. The couple decided it was time to put down more permanent roots returning to southern California, according to, Bonnie.
Neal and Connie decided they wanted to raise their family some place other than southern California. They chose to move to Bass Lake where the family had enjoyed camping and waterskiing. The mountains allowed them to backpack in the summers and ski in the winters. The couple had completed the entire John Muir Trail before their children were born.
Neal, a self-taught builder, built their home at Bass Lake and the current home where he resides.
"He trained many young men over the years, who worked for him, and, taught them the building trade. Most of them are still building homes for a living," said daughter, Wendy.
Neal and Connie competed in the National Standard Race (NASTAR) and in 1984, Neal, at 71, placed third and Connie, at 64, placed first in their age categories.
The couple, along with several others, wanted to pass along their love for the outdoors and especially for snow skiing. The group started the Mountain Area Ski School (MASS) where children have a chance to learn the skills of skiing. The program is in existence today and thousands of children have learned to ski as a result.
These days, Bladen enjoys sitting on his deck or spending time in his greenhouse feeding the birds and squirrels. "He goes through 25 pounds of feed a week," Bonnie said with a chuckle.
"Dad's positive outlook and his Christian Science faith have kept him healthy and still living happily in his own home," said daughter Cindy.
Bladen enjoys daily rounds of Rummikub with family and listening to audiobooks. But most important of all is, "family," Bladen said. He has the opportunity to spend several nights a week enjoying dinner with his family. When that family is around there are, "no problems. no worries," he said.