BATAVIA — Over the past century, Ken Dehm has seen the world.
Celebrating his 100th birthday on Wednesday, Dehm was born Feb. 27, 1919 in Syracuse to Edward and Anna Dehm — the third of six children. Growing up on a farm, he was 10 when the Great Depression hit and with it, the loss of his father’s job at the Franklin Motor Company. And so at age 11, Dehm began to travel — only eight to nine miles on his bicycle, but it was a route he took every day as he delivered the news to people’s doorsteps in order to support his family.
However, he didn’t stay to the confines of Western New York long. After graduating high school, he found work in Middleton — a city north of New York City in Orange County — when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. At the age of 22 he walked into the recruitment office and when he left, he bid New York and the United States goodbye as he boarded the U.S.S. Barnegat as a member of the Navy.
“When Germany would come over, they needed fuel for their submarines, so our ship was to detect where they were getting their fuel and stop their submarines from running,” Dehm recalled, nursing a cup of coffee at his kitchen table on Roosevelt Avenue in Batavia. The Barnegat in the early part of the war also took supplies up to Iceland before going down to help with an invasion at Port Lyautey in Africa in 1942. Dehm said the ship saw there was a large fort at the port, which was firing on the U.S.S. Barnegat, and upon returning fire they hit the ammunitions of the fort, silencing the guns. After that, it returned to it’s duty of prowling the ocean waves looking for German submarines.
Coming home from the war, Dehm went to Cornell University, graduating in 1950 with a bachelor of science in economics after which he would find work with Hub Motor Sales, where he would continue to move about — this time within the confines of the United States.
However, in the spring of 1953 he began to travel down a new road — one of love.
After carrying a sack of quarters around to make calls to his contacts from pay phones, he was convinced to get a telephone credit card. Walking into the telephone company, he met a woman who would change his life; Teresa, whom he would end up marrying.
“She waited on me in the telephone company,” he said. “I knew I had to see her again.”
To do just that, Dehm purposefully made a mistake on his paperwork to have an excuse to come back. Yet when he walked through the doors, searching for the woman who caught his attention, he was told she was in Albany for a month training for a promotion, and Dehm himself was about to travel west to Michigan for his own job. Undeterred, he got her name and address and penned her letters. When the two finally reunited, they dated for a half a year before becoming engaged in May 1953.
Dehm wouldn’t move to Batavia, where he would finally plant his roots, with his wife until his oldest daughter, Marie, was 8-years-old. At the time they only had their two oldest children — Marie and John — but 12 years later their youngest child, Jayne would be born.
“The J.I. Case Company had me down in Baltimore, and my wife didn’t like it there,” he said. “She wanted to come back up, so I checked real estate here in Batavia (because my wife came from Elba) and found a home.”
Contacting a friend from Cornell University he found a job at Climax Corporation in Le Roy, a family-owned harvester company. His job was to collect money from people who owed before eventually becoming it’s vice president. Then he traveled to work with Jones Chemical, a chemical maker which sells across the United States, and managed all the account branches.
Dehm eventually slowed down and retired at age 70, — although he worked with the census briefly — and decided to relax with his wife.
So once again, Dehm hit the road except this time with Teresa and nobody telling them where to go.
“We used to make trips across the United States for our vacation,” he said. “In the years 1992 to 1994 we set out on May 20 and we would go to states in New England and head to the west coast. We would hit states as we went on out to the Pacific. We would come the northern route and hit the northern states, and we would get home by July 3.”
In the three years they did that, the couple had driven through all 48 contiguous states.
“Health wise, it’s wonderful,” Dehm said when asked what it’s like to live for a century. Pulling out a memorial card out of his pocket, he showed a picture of his deceased wife. “I miss my wife (who died Feb. 19, 2011). I carry this with me all the time.”
While he no longer travels the world, Dehm still gets around his own small corner of the world as he plays cribbage at the Senior Center in Batavia and rides two miles on his bicycle every day.