A chance meeting at a thrift store has given 95-year-old Herb Cies the power to dream and think young again.
“It’s kind of a rebirth to be this old and still enjoy people this young,” Cies said of his friendship with Cassoday Harder, 21, and Hannah Rhoades, 19.
The retired Methodist minister and World War II veteran was scouring the Et Cetera Shop, a thrift store in Newton that raises money for the Mennonite Central Committee, one day in late 2013 when he bumped into the two women.
“We just happened to be looking at the same thing,” Cies said. Harder remembered he was looking at hats.
Harder and Rhoades struck up a conversation with the quick-to-smile man.
“He was just super-sweet,” Harder said of Cies.
“My goodness, this is a delight,” Cies remembered thinking.
A short time later, Cies ran into Harder and Rhoades at the Jacky Chan III Chinese restaurant in Newton, where he dines about once a week.
“I thought ‘What a coincidence,’ ” Cies said Sunday at Asbury Park, a retirement community in Newton where he lives independently.
Rhoades and Harder invited him to their table and told him they’d like to take him to lunch the next week. At the time, the two women were roommates.
“I gladly accepted,” he said. “They insisted on paying for it.”
Cies, who grew up a block east of what is now I-135 in Wichita and who graduated from Wichita East High School in 1938, reciprocated the next time.
“This became about an every-week or every-two-weeks thing,” he said.
Their friendship came at the right time. Cies had lost his wife of 63 years, Lucile, in August 2012 and his youngest son in July 2013.
“Somehow it just began to fill a void,” he said of spending time with Harder and Rhoades and their families.
And Cies was someone Harder and Rhoades could turn to for advice.
“As we got to know him, we really enjoyed spending time with him,” Harder said.
Since their first meeting, he has spent holidays with Harder and Rhoades and their families. He enjoyed two Thanksgiving dinners this past year – one at Harder’s maternal grandparents’ home in Wichita and one with her paternal grandparents in Newton. Cies went to Rhoades’ family for breakfast on Christmas Day.
“I was in seventh heaven,” he said.
Cies’ children live across the country. His wife’s first husband, Jack Tanner, had died in a refinery accident. She was raising four children alone in Lawrence. Her obituary said she bought a large home at the foot of the Hill in Lawrence, providing room and board for eight male Wesley Foundation students and board for seven female students in addition to her four children.
Cies, also attending college in Lawrence, met her when a friend invited him to a picnic and played matchmaker. The friend told Cies to make enough salad for 14 people. (Cies has a sharp memory.)
“I met this beautiful family,” he said.
He recalled that one of his wife’s children was jumping over a candle lit to ward off mosquitoes during the picnic, singing “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.” She leaped into his lap, looked up at him with her brown eyes and said “I wish you’d be my daddy,” Cies recalled, “and that’s all it took.”
He had started his education at William Jewell College, then transferred to Denver University. He had been there a couple of years when he was drafted. He served five years overseas. Cies and his wife graduated from the University of Kansas in 1949.
They had one child together, Edwin Cies, who died in 2013. The other children visit when they can, he said, and his friendship with Rhoades and Harder and their families rounds out his life.
“This just simply opened up a whole new life for me,” Cies said. “I’ve just had some of the times of my life.”
Harder and Rhoades are quick to say they receive more from the friendship than Cies realizes.
“I don’t think he knows how much he’s given us,” Rhoades said Sunday from Colorado, where she is an intern at the New Life School of Worship.
A songwriter, she wants to do some kind of ministry through music.
Rhoades said she isn’t friends with Cies out of some sense of commitment to “spend time with the elderly or anything like that.”
When she talks to people about him, she said, “I don’t even tell people his age.” Cies is simply her friend, she said.
“I genuinely enjoy his company,” Rhoades said. “He’s one of the wisest, most joyful people I think I’ve ever met.”
An example: She said some people in the retirement community where Cies lives were complaining about construction there – the noise and hassle of it. Rhoades said she asked Cies what he thought about it.
“He looked at me and sat for a minute and said, ‘You know, I’m excited because I’m part of the future. I think it’s great.’
“He’s so open to change and welcomes it,” she said. “A lot has to do with his faith and trust in God.”
Another example of Cies’ character he probably didn’t realize he was sharing: He will be buried next to his wife and her first husband at a cemetery in Newton. Some people have asked him, he said, whether being buried next to his wife’s first husband will bother him. Not all, he said. His wife’s first husband was a good man, he said.
“He was a good man who lost his family, and I found a family,” Cies said. “I’ll be proud to be buried next to him.”
Rhoades said Cies is not only encouraging but empowering.
Cies said he wasn’t sure how to relate at first to people more than 70 years his junior. He once asked Rhoades and Harder how they saw him and why they enjoyed spending time with him.
They told him they see him as a grandfather figure, though they have their own grandparents. But it goes beyond that, Rhoades said.
She leaned on a verse from the Bible to explain: “We love because he first loved us.”
Cies teared up just a little when citing the verse Sunday. This year, when he sent out Christmas cards, he wrote the verse at the bottom of every card.
He calls Harder and Rhoades his “angels.”
“Herb has been a big blessing to our family as well,” said Cristy Harder, Cassoday Harder’s mother.
Cies spends time with the Harders, getting to know the other five girls in the family. He attends family birthday parties and get-togethers. A photograph on Cristy Harder’s Facebook page shows him holding up a pair of wind-up teeth, his gag gift to her 12-year-old daughter, Anna. He spends time with Rhoades’ family, too.
Harder, a junior at KU, said she and Rhoades make a point to see Cies whenever they are home in Newton.
“He’s taught me a lot about loving other people,” Harder said. “He’s probably the best person I’ve ever met. He’s very right in his mind. I think he means as much to us as we do to him.”