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Living for a century

Last modified: 2/21/2011 12:00:00 AM
A lot can change in 100 years. When Elden Dustin was a young boy, he would pick up the phone at 10 a.m. and listen in as the ladies of Contoocook gathered to gossip on the town's single line. He graduated from Hopkinton High as the valedictorian in a class of six. His father was the last horse-and-buggy man in town, still clopping around into the late-1950s to drop off eggs and milk from the family farm and toting a shovel and bucket to clean up after his steed.

Yesterday, family members gathered at Havenwood-Heritage Heights retirement home in Concord to celebrate Dustin's 100th birthday and share stories he has passed down along the way.

"It's been a long life," Dustin said quietly as he ate his cake. "It takes an occasion like this to revive your relationships with so many people."

In attendance were his three children, eight of his 10 grandchildren and his three great-grandchildren - including 12-week-old Terrence Elden Cain, named after the man himself.

"I can't imagine life without him," Rosy Cain, Terrence's mother, said of her grandfather celebrating the century mark. "It's never occurred to me that he wouldn't be here."

Family members said Dustin is a direct descendant - about 11th generation, some calculated - of Hannah Dustin, the New England woman said to have been kidnapped during an Indian raid in 1697 and taken to an island on the Merrimack River near Penacook, where she killed and scalped her sleeping captors.

Born on Feb. 18, 1911, Elden Dustin grew up on a 320-acre farm at the top of Dustin Road in Contoocook. Upon graduation from Hopkinton High - which was not accredited at the time - the principal called his alma mater, Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, to see if Dustin would be allowed to enroll, according to his son, Dan Dustin.

Elden Dustin was allowed to take classes at Bates and was granted room and board in exchange for shoveling coal to keep the furnace running at the school president's house, his daughter Sara Dustin said. He would go on later in life to earn a master's degree in education from Yale.

"I've never stopped learning," Elden Dustin said, wearing a tie tack from the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society.

In one of his first jobs out of college, Dustin was the principal at a four-room school in Belmont, Sara Dustin said. Annual reports from those days show him as one of four teachers for 65 students, said his grandson Ben Russell, now a librarian at Belmont High School.

"Three 22-year-olds and him - the wise old man at 29," Russell said.

The day Sara Dustin, Elden Dustin's first child, was born at Laconia Hospital in 1937, he was so excited he neglected to properly hang up the house phone, holding up the line for other residents in Belmont, daughter Susan Clarke said.

"Of course, the doors weren't locked," Clarke said. "Somebody walked over and put the phone back on the hook."

Ralph Bennett, 87, also a resident at Havenwood, said he was one of Dustin's students at Belmont between 1937 and 1941. Bennett rattled off the subjects Dustin taught him during those four years: civics in the first year, algebra in the second, geometry and appreciation of literature and music in the third, English in the final two years.

"In those days, the principal earned his money," Bennett said. "He didn't have to jack the taxpayers with all kinds of assistants, necessary and unnecessary."

Dustin would spend less than a decade at Belmont, eventually moving on to spend most of his career as vice principal and principal in Stratford, Conn. But he and his family never lost touch with his roots as a Contoocook farm boy.

In the 1970s, his son Dan Dustin, a self-described hippie, built a log cabin in the woods on the Dustin Road property and raised four children there without running water.

"We grew up in much the same way" Dustin had, granddaughter Deodonne Bhattarai of Cambridge said. Nine households in the Dustin clan live on the property now, including most of the family members gathered yesterday, Clarke said.

When Dustin and his late wife, Rosamond, decided to move into Havenwood in the 1990s, they didn't shy away from the prospect of death. The couple bought their tombstone at Blackwater Cemetery in Contoocook and prepaid their funeral costs.

Bhattarai, who has a picture taken with her grandparents at their gravesite, said the preparation wasn't morbid, but rather an example of old-fashioned New Hampshire self-reliance.

"Just to make sure all your business is in order," she said. "They didn't want to be a burden."

Jim Palmquist, Dustin's 93-year-old roommate at Havenwood, said he recently sent a letter to the White House informing President Obama of Dustin's 100-year milestone. Based on prior experience, Palmquist expects Dustin to get a letter recognizing the achievement.

"I think they'll do it," Palmquist said. "It's votes, you know."

Yesterday, Dustin was thoughtful and insightful, entertaining family members in small groups from his wheelchair. He gets more tired and fatigued than he used to, he admitted, but it didn't keep him from being the hit of the party.

Moments after his great-granddaughters blew out the candles, he spoke up at a level barely audible amid the festivity.

"It's so kind of everybody to come," he said.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)


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