At nearly 100-years old, longtime Rochester-area resident Gail Kemler is a busy lady. And, that's just the way she likes it.
"I don't feel like I thought you are supposed to feel at 100," said Kemler, who becomes an official centenarian on October 28, 2017. "The secret, I think, to longevity is keeping busy – particularly my head. I do crosswords. I started those after I retiring in 1984 from selling real estate. I do two every day."
Born in Illinois, Kemler visited her grandparents in Rochester as a young child when her mother was recovering from an illness. At the time, her grandfather ran the Idle Hour Theatre on Main Street. Her family moved to the city when she was in 9th grade, sending her to Rochester High School, where she graduated in 1935. She got her first job when she was 17, working at the Western Knitting Mill, now home to the Rochester Mills Beer Company, making glove liners for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Some of the money she made was given to her father, who owned a dry cleaning business, to repair the family car.
"People couldn't afford dry cleaning," she said. "It's impossible for anyone who didn't live through the Great Depression to really understand."
It was after marrying her childhood sweetheart, Don, in 1938, and raising their four children that she became more involved in the community. In the 1950s, she worked with Michigan State University's Home Extension to help patients discharged from the state hospital in Pontiac learn new life skills. As her children went through school, Kemler got involved with the school district, serving on the Rochester Community Schools school board during its expansion from 1964 to 1972.
"We were very fortunate to have a good superintendent," she said of the rapid expansion of schools during that time.
Some of Kemler's other work in the community involved helping to found the Rochester Area Neighborhood House and the Helping Hands Food Pantry. She's been a member of the Congregational Church for more than 85 years, where she served on its board of trustees. She was also a longtime member of the Rochester Historical Commission and Rochester-Avon Historical Society, serving as its president. She most recently served on the city's 2017 Bicentennial Committee, as well as Rochester's historic study committee, which was tasked with identifying properties with historic value in the city.
"I am interested in saving the good things that we have here, and preserving and encouraging other people to do the same," she said. "The problem has been educating everyone on the historic value (of buildings) and what can be done to preserve it. But people are afraid of costs. We just don't want to see anything happen to our history – we want to help preserve it."
In 2014, Kemler was given a special recognition award for her work on the Rochester Historical Commission. Earlier this year, she was inducted into the Rochester Hills Wall of Fame to commemorate her contributions to the community.
While not currently serving on volunteer boards, Kemler's phone rings everyday with calls from those in the community looking for information or advice. And she's always ready to offer help.
"If I see something I can help with, I will," she said. "I like to encourage others. When you see someone that shows an interest, you encourage it."
Photo: Jean Lannen