At 90, she’s a real firecracker |

At 90, she’s a real firecracker

by Linda Hiller

Having a birthday on the Fourth of July has its drawbacks as well as its benefits.

Marie Gunderson, who is celebrating her 90th birthday today, said she hasn’t been a fan of fireworks since she was quite young.

“When I was 7 or 8, I had my shoe shot off by a cherry bomb and I’ve never liked fireworks since,” she said. “I was sitting on a porch railing and my feet were hanging down and the next thing I knew, my shoe went flying. It was my big brothers, Frank and John, and my foot got burned.”

On the positive side, having an entire country raucously celebrate on your birthday, would make any young child feel unique, at the very least.

“I knew I was the most special girl in the world,” she said. “I thought they were celebrating for me.”

Marie Valerie (Kish) Gunderson was born born on the Fourth of July, 1908 in Omaha, Neb.. Her parents were immigrants from Yugoslavia, seeking a better life in America.

In 90 years, the slight, 5-foot Gunderson has seen many changes and worn many hats.

As a young woman in the 1920s, she was preparing for a career as an interpreter, and still speaks some of the six languages – Yugoslavian, Bohemian, Czechoslovakian, German, French and English – she studied.

At the time she also had a musical group, “Marie’s Dance Band,” playing piano and drums and performing her proficient whistling for gatherings around Omaha.

“I don’t whistle anymore,” she said. “I’ve got no pucker.”

During World War II, Marie was an armed guard at the B29 bomber plant in Nebraska.

“There was a lot of saboteuring going on back then,” she said. “I was a crack shot. We had orders to shoot to kill if necessary.”

Before moving to Carson Valley in 1994, Gunderson said recent conditions in Southern California made her feel the need to carry a gun, which she did without trepidation.

“I’m still a crack shot,” said Gunderson. “I never had a shaky hand like some of the other woman guards.”

Probably her most proud occupation was the 25 years she spent as a “Mama nanny,” caring for young children.

“I did ordained childcare – I never let the children out of my sight,” she said.

Today, Marie will be the focus of attention for more than 40 guests at her home, which she shares with daughter and son-in-law, Donna and John Leveck. Two of the guests will be sisters who Gunderson cared for when they were very young.

“People are coming from as far away as Atlanta and Seattle to her birthday,” Donna Leveck said. “She’s just so spry and so full of fun – everyone loves Mama Marie!”

“We’re going to have a house full of love,” Gunderson said.

Among the “Happy 90th Birthday” greetings on the living room table is a card from United States President Bill Clinton and first lady, Hillary Clinton.

“I don’t know who told them about me, but I appreciate this card so much,” she said.

Leveck said her mother has become an instant Nevadan since moving here four years ago.

“She loves to sit and watch the birds outside,” she said. “She just loves it, and savors everything.”

“This is God’s country,” Gunderson said. “It has been a dream come true for all of us to be here.”

With warm blue eyes and a ready smile, 93-pound Marie Gunderson is the picture of how to live a long, happy life.

In spite of many hardships over the years, her enthusiasm and passion for small things is surpassed only by her sense of humor and spirituality.

“I am so lucky,” she said. “I’m proud of my family and excited to see everyone on my birthday. I always say thank-you to God everyday. I hope everyone leads the kind of life that entitles them blessings like I have.”

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