According to longtime Woodstock resident Marge Birk, the secret to a long life is to stay busy and active.
She would know. Even at 97 years old, Birk, who has lived in Woodstock since 1939, has no intention of slowing down.
“I am busy, but that’s the way I want it. I want to be busy,” Birk said.
Through the years, Birk worked at a number of Woodstock institutions, including the Woodstock Sentinel newspaper, Memorial Hospital and the McHenry County Courthouse. But perhaps her longest involvement has been at Grace Lutheran Church, which she and her late husband, Vernon, joined shortly after moving to Woodstock. Birk joined Grace’s sewing circle in 1972 and became its leader in 1983, a role she continues to hold.
The group makes quilts which are donated through Lutheran World Relief for people in need all over the world. Locally, the sewing circle also donates its handmade items to nursing homes. Birk said the effort is rewarding and a good way to stay active. She drives herself to weekly sewing club gatherings at the church.
Birk was born in Bigfoot and grew up on a farm near Harvard with her parents and nine siblings.
“My mother gave birth to us in the home. The doctor used to come to the homes then,” she recalled.
Birk’s first job was as a waitress at the Harvard Cafe. One evening while waiting for her friend to finish a shift, she met her future husband, Vernon Birk. In 2017, the Birks would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Vernon Birk passed away in 1998, and his children have since passed, too.
“He was a gentleman, so polite,” Birk recalled of her husband.
The couple moved to Woodstock in 1939 and, in 1950, bought the two-story house that Birk still calls home. She said much has changed in the intervening decades.
“We used to have two grocery stores, pharmacies, drug stores, dime stores, all on the Square. It isn’t the same as it used to be, but nothing is. Everything changes. It’s something you have to expect,” she said.
Despite the changes, Birk says she would never leave Woodstock.
“I have so many friends here,” she said.
Birk will turn 98 in March. Birthday celebrations these days can last a couple of days.
“Sometimes it goes on three different days. This one wants me and that one wants me,” she said.
When she’s not volunteering her time at church, Birk is surrounded by a loving circle of friends and family and is proud to be a great-great-grandmother. She spends a lot of time with her cousin who lives in Woodstock.
Even though no grandchildren are in the immediate area, Birk has been adopted as a grandmother of sorts to her neighbor’s dog, Tilly. The cockapoo visits her regularly for treats and falls asleep at her feet.
“She knows where grandma is, and she comes right over. She loves my yard,” Birk said.
Birk takes great pleasure in travel but said in recent years she has spent less time doing so, since loved ones she visited have passed away or fallen ill. These days, her schedule is busier than many half her age, whether she is playing cards with friends, visiting at Hearthstone Communities, playing bingo or volunteering with funeral luncheons at Grace Lutheran. Her homemade apple cake is a popular request at the church.
Birk’s sage advice is, “Keep active. If you don’t, you’re going downhill.”
This is part of “Living History,” which documents the lives and stories of senior citizens from Woodstock, Wonder Lake and Bull Valley. To recommend a senior citizen to be featured in “Living History,” email firstname.lastname@example.org.