When Frances Vendena graduated from high school in 1935, her classmates declared her “happy-go-lucky”, and the phrase even appeared below her smiling yearbook photo.
Born on January 1, 1918, she was the first baby of the year welcomed into Alma, Nebraska. Now, at 106-years-old, Frances still smiles and laughs her way through conversations, recounting fond memories from growing up in Alma, Nebraska and raising her family in Wheat Ridge.
At 18 years old and still known as Frances Feese, she traveled to Denver by train to earn her cosmetology degree at the Denver Beauty School. Though she would get her degree, her future took on a different trajectory only a few hours after her arrival, when at Denver Dance Academy, she met Roxy Vendena. On May Day in 1937, the two were married in Mt. Carmel Church and got busy establishing their poultry business, Ridge Valley Poultry.
Though it was much different work from applying makeup and cutting hair, Frances loved talking to the customers that would come into their small shop on 29th Avenue and Depew Street.
“I was so happy and it was so fun getting started and did all it took to get a business going,” Frances said. “The people were very nice to us, patronized us and it was just fun and we were young.”
The store grew rapidly as the Vendenas became known for the freshness and quality of their meat and egg products. The week before each Thanksgiving, people from all over the city would line up down the street for a turkey. They often sold up to 5,000 turkeys in one week, said Frances’ daughter, Francille Hackethal.
From their poultry store they expanded to having a successful fertilizer business, Permagreen Plant Food.
Though she will always consider Nebraska her first home, Frances wasted no time getting acquainted with the community in Wheat Ridge, and making the city home for her young family.
When she wasn’t working in the store or taking care of her three children Francille, Judy and Roxy, Frances played the piano and organ at weddings and churches, volunteered as a Pink Lady at Lutheran Hospital, served food in the Blue House on 38th Avenue and was active in the rosary and altar at St. Mary Magdalene Church.
“When I had a day open that I didn’t have something, I would go up and give my services, whatever they needed,” Frances said. “I became acquainted with all different phases. It was a learning process and I met such nice people.”
Though she and Roxy moved to their home on 6105 W. 49th Place in 1975, they remained in the heart of Wheat Ridge, and got to witness how the city grew and evolved from a small farm town with acres of open land, to a bustling business corridor with lots of families moving in, Frances said.
Frances and Roxy continued dancing at Elitch Gardens Trocadero Ballroom and Lakeside Amusement Park, and would take their family out for spaghetti in Louisville. For a couple whose honeymoon celebration consisted of a hamburger, malt and dancing, joy came easily.
At 106, Frances now spends her time at home with her family and caregivers. On Tuesdays she and Francille play “Name that Tune” with classic favorites played by Francille on an electric organ. She receives communion at 3:30 p.m., and enjoys a warm meal with her daughter and son-in-law Clem Hackethal in the evening. On Thursday, Judy comes over and “gets her all dolled up” by painting her fingernails and doing her hair. Her son Roxy comes by to help her maintain her home and grounds and manages her caregivers.
Frances’ house is warm, with bright windows that look out over wide open fields. Every corner of her home is a tribute to her family and their life, with dozens of framed photos of her three children, six grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.
Shimmering balloons from her 106th birthday float happily in her living room, and if you’re lucky, a pan of her famous chocolate cake is cooling in the kitchen.
There’s no real secret to living as long as she has, Frances says. Just laughter and trusting in “God’s will.”
“I didn’t dream that I would live this long, but I appreciate it anyway,” Frances said.
She wants to pass down to her family all of the wonderful things that are possible to see and do in this world, so long as they are willing to go out and make them happen.
“Just stay with it, because there are good things out there, but you have to go after them,” Frances said. “You can’t just sit and let them come to you, you’ve got to work for everything that’s worth working for.”
Frances is so proud of all of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and she loves it when they find time to come see her. Frances dreams of the day when she’ll get to see her first-born grandson again, Clem Hackethal III, who she has missed constantly since his passing in 2015.
There’s so much to say after 106 years, so many stories and memories to share, so many lessons learned. But Frances sums it up simply: “It was a good life, all the way around.”