Brush Prairie local reflects on his ‘miraculous’ survival for 100th birthday


Having survived World War II, sleeping sickness and raising five children, Brush Prairie resident Richard Ayers contemplated the events that shaped his life on his 100th birthday on Feb. 17.

Ayers is the eldest child of six in his family and was born in Dover, Colorado. When he was 8, Ayers’ mother passed from pneumonia after delivering her sixth child. The loss of his mother shook the family, and their father sought outside help to assist with raising the children, Ayers said.

“With the grandpa’s help, and by hiring housekeepers, Dad was able to keep all of us together. That was quite the feat on his part because some of the relatives wanted to take us kids. He kept us together,” Ayers said.

The rural Colorado countryside where Ayers lived had few schooling opportunities. The high school within his school district, in Nunn, Colorado, was too far away. He rode his horse, Bluebell, to a neighbor’s house two miles down the road to catch the bus to school, Ayers said.

During his sophomore year, Ayers caught encephalitis lethargica, also known as “sleeping sickness,” Ayers said. It took time to recover, and his illness disqualified him from some military roles in adulthood.

After a lengthy recovery, Ayers opted to return to Carr High School because, as his father joked, he was taken with a “little blond, curly-haired girl” of whom Ayers had grown fond, Odessa Chadwick.

Ayers and Chadwick came to know each other while he worked for her father on their family dairy farm, Ayers said. The high school sweethearts married, with their parent’s permission, on April 3, 1942. Ayers was 17, and Chadwick was 18, he said.

Ayers’ family moved from Colorado to the West Coast after his father remarried. Their move was spurred by bad farming conditions in Colorado, during the Dust Bowl.

During World War II, Ayers was drafted into the Army in 1944. He left for war shortly after the birth of his first son, Lyndal “Lyn” Ayers. He served in the 30th Infantry Division, also known as “Old Hickory,” Ayers said.

“During the war, it had so many casualties that the original soldiers had to be replenished two and a half times before the war was over,” a memoir by Odessa and Richard Ayers, “The War Years,” stated.

Ayers’ experiences during the war left him traumatized. After experiencing four months of combat, he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was discharged in Denver, Colorado, on Jan. 24, 1946, after the end of the war.

“It has been 76 years since I returned from the Second World War. Yes, I had some psychological challenges that I didn’t realize for a long time. It took many years to absorb what I had experienced and be able to talk about it. There are still occasions that arise and cause a brief flashback although these years of life have softened the response,” Ayers stated in the book.

He returned home to Colorado and their family grew to five children. Soon after, Richard and Odessa Ayers moved to Washington to provide them with better educational opportunities.

“I decided we’d come to Washington because we had visited a couple of times and liked it out here,” Ayers said. “Clark College was out here, and we wanted all our kids to go to college.”

Ayers is known by his family for his work ethic. In 1969, Ayer’s father passed away from a heart attack. To support his step-mother, Ayers took over the family farm in Brush Prairie. At that time, Ayers worked for Union Pacific Railroad and managed his own farm in La Center. His work kept him very busy, Ayers said.

“In retrospect, what were we thinking? I guess we did what we had to do at the time,” Ayers said.

After his step-mother needed more intensive care, the farm in Brush Prairie became Richard and Odessa Ayers’ primary residence, and the farm in La Center was taken over by family members.

Over the years, Ayers’ family grew to include five children, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. When extended family and members of the Chadwick family get together, reunions can be 50-people strong, Ayers said.

Odessa Ayers passed on July 18, 2019. They were married for more than 77 years. Though Ayers misses her, his family keeps him company, Ayers said.

Ayers expressed disbelief at becoming 100, saying it is “miraculous ” to have survived the things he’s experienced.

Nowadays, Ayers spends his time working on his antique and model tractor collections, tending his garden, participating in church and enjoying his family.