A Life Well-Lived
By Jack Criss • Photography by Holly Tharp
According to the latest Census Bureau statistics, there are about 90,000 centenarians in the United States, an increase from around 72,000 centenarians in 2014 and 50,000 in 2000, according to additional numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One centenarian, currently lives in Cleveland. His long life can certainly be measured by more than just years: his 100 years were filled with public service, duty, hard work and other such worthwhile tangibles—and intangibles—that transcend the mere passage of time.
Nevin Sledge has, as the saying goes, “done it all”—and his postive attitude is that there is always more to come and move ahead. When most people these days think of retiring at the age of 62, or even earlier, Sledge (who turned 100 on February 6 of this year) is not one to rest on his laurels. And, this attitude comes after a life filled with accomplishments that most people half his age could only imagine.
“I’m always looking for something new to do,” laughed Sledge. “I can’t stand the idea of just sitting still. I feel like I’ve still got all the time in the world and I need to fill it with something. Staying busy is important to me—always has been.”
Given his age, the question begs to be asked: is there a “secret” to living to the age of 100? Obviously, a practical and realistic man, Sledge’s answer might disappoint those looking for a magic potion or fountain of youth.
“No, I don’t have any secrets,” he says. “I did, though, come from a good family with strong standards and I’ve always been surrounded by wonderful people. I don’t have any pains or major health problems to speak of, so I’m very fortunate—I truly am. I’m thankful to have people who care for me, like my daughter-in-law Peggy—I don’t know what I do without her. I lost my wife Brenda twenty years ago, after fifty-eight years of a happy and very successful marriage and Peggy and the rest of my family have been here for me. I also even have a few friends here in town who are veterans like myself and we are always in touch. My life right now is both full and fulfilling and it’s mainly because of family and friends,” says Sledge.
Did he expect to live as long as he has?
“Yes,” answers Sledge emphatically. “I think after Dr. Oschner in New Orleans, who I’m sure everyone knows about, told me in the late 50’s, ‘Boy, if you give up those damned cigarettes you’ll live to be an old man!’,” he laughs. “I had been smoking since I was a senior in high school, but I quit on Dr. Oschner’s admonishment, so maybe that has something to do with how well my health has gone. Most of the people who knew who were heavy smokers back then and never stopped have long since passed away.”
Sledge went on to add that “my home life with my wife, the good food she always prepared and the lack of stress due to our happiness surely helped. She put up with my often working long hours, but never complained. Brenda, who was a Wilson and a Cleveland native, was my high school sweetheart and our fifty-eight years together were the greaest of my life. Looking back, I’ve been a very lucky man.”
Born in Alva, Mississippi, Pascal Nevin Sledge was one of seven children. When young Nevin was two, the family moved to Bolivar County and that is where he has remained ever since outside of his time in military service.
Sledge went on to attend Delta State University before leaving in 1942 to join the Marine Corps as a cadet during World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, finishing first in his training class of 319 Naval Aviation cadets which included future president, George H. W. Bush. With his commission and wings he became a flight instructor at Corpus Christi, Texas where one of his trainees was future film star Tyrone Powers (“He really was a heck of a handsome guy!” recalls Sledge). Afterwards, he entered the Pacific conflict where he served as a command pilot in the Marine Air Transport Squadron eventually earning the rank of Captain and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Often engaged in conflict with the Japanese kamikaze pilots and avoiding numerous near-fatal misses, such as when a guided bomb passed just under his cockpit while stationary on a an air field (and leaving Sledge with a massive concussion), his heroic exploits in the Pacific Theater were enough to bring a film crew from the World War II Museum in New Orleans to Cleveland several years ago to record a videotaped interview with Sledge.
“Unfortunately, I’ve never seen the finished product,” he says.
After the end of World War II, Sledge returned to his bride in Cleveland and began a long and successful career in the automotive business, first as a parts department worker before eventually owning Sledge Chevrolet-Oldsmobile dealership.
“I didn’t know a thing about cars when I started,” he laughed. “But I paid attention, learned and ended up being fortunate.”
During his tenure in the industry, Sledge received recognition through countless accolades and awards: President of the Delta Dealers Association, the Mississippi Dealers Association, the Regional Dealers Council and National Dealers Council, and the 1981 recipient of the coveted “Quality Dealer Award” as recognized by Time magazine.
Sledge also had a successful political career, serving twenty-three years as a member of Cleveland’s Board of Aldermen from 1954 to 1977, eight years as the Vice-Mayor of the city and, finally, as a Mississippi State Senator representing Bolivar County and a portion of Coahoma County for three terms before retiring in 1992 where he established a reputation as an expert on ad valorem taxes and served as chairman on several committees. Eighty-seven percent of the bills introduced in his last three years as senator with Sledge as author passed. It was also while a state senator that Sledge met a young politician that impressed him greatly.
“In the early 80s I got to know a fellow named Bill Clinton,” recalls Sledge, “and I really thought he was sharp. He even visited my home here in Cleveland several times while he was governor of Arkansas. In fact, when Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts was running for president in the 1988 election, I wrote a letter urging him to pick Clinton as his choice for vice president,” says Sledge. “In the letter I wrote that, while Clinton was not very well known outside of the deep South, he nonetheless could probably help him carry the South, which he needed. Well, Dukakis wrote me back and agreed with me. But, he said that the Democratic Party had already made that decision for him. Clinton found out about this and never forgot it.
Sledge “retired” in 1993, buying a parcel of land in north Cleveland which he called the Apple Farm. He’s the father of four children and is “Big Daddy” to nine grandchildren and many great-grandchildren.
When asked what his proudest accomplishment has been in life, Sledge
thought for a moment. “You know, I really can’t say if there was one thing,” he answered. “I’ve accomplished most of the things I set out or wanted to do but, as quaint as it may sound, I always wanted to make friends in my life. If you make and keep friends, whether in the military, the senate or wherever, it pays off in dividends. In my opinion, nothing is better than having good friends. I even had a friend who served with me in the Pacific, a guy named Stodghill, come to my rescue after the war when I was in the auto business by having car parts delivered here daily to Cleveland from Chicago at a time when they were in short supply,” laughs Sledge. “That’s the kind of thing loyal, good friends can do for you.”
When asked his opinion of the times we’re living through today, as opposed to the years he spent as a member of the “Greatest Generation” Sledge answered philosophically.
“Well, things are so very different today,” he says. “But, in my mind, I’ve always thought that if you work hard, tend to your business and are honest in your dealings you can make progress in anything you do. I came through the Depression, for instance, and we made it just fine—we survived. We didn’t lock our doors back then or live in fear. Again, I’ve just been lucky in my life—I really believe that.”
A long life, lived well, full of heroic deeds and high accomplishments. That is the life of Nevin Sledge and it is one that we all should aspire to, whatever our age. He is truly a great Son of the Delta.