Dr. John Downes – a veteran, agricultural specialist and education enthusiast – is celebrating his centennial birthday at the McMinn Senior Activity Center.
The centenarian was born on Feb. 27, 1919.
A center member since 1987, Downes is originally from Morgantown, West Virginia. Having grown up in a mining community, it was there he was first exposed to learning Italian, which he credits with inspiring him to become multilingual.
In addition to English, Downes still speaks Italian, but is also fluent in Spanish and Portuguese.
Downes is a United States Navy veteran and served in World War II, though he spent most of his life in higher education.
When questioned on his secret to a life of longevity, Downes responded with transparency.
“I don’t know how I made it,” he said. “I have no idea.”
Undoubtedly, in his lifetime, he has witnessed a number of historically iconic events and innovations. Some of these particularly impacted his perspective of appreciating change.
For instance, the economic hardships of the Great Depression, along with the nation’s subsequent recovery, gave him an unwavering spirit of gratitude.
“I lived through the roaring '20s, the Great Depression - we had nothing to eat for a week at a time, no utilities, no gas, no heat,” Downes reflected. “There was no money. Everybody wanted to work and eat, but there was no money. Even professors were paid in scrip.”
The Depression brought with it food scarcity for many people, but in years that followed, Downes, who spent time as a produce farmer, ended up supplying food in excess.
Turning his attention from the past to the present – he emphasized that America’s current availability of food and, likewise, food technology are incredible.
“It’s remarkable today the abundance of food. It’s overwhelming here,” Downes said, adding that “of course, there are still people starving in other countries.”
With a bachelor’s degree in general agriculture and both a master’s and PhD in horticulture, Downes is both thoroughly impressed with advancements in food production, as well as astonished by some skepticism of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
“I did quite a lot of work on plant breeding, but the market quality and ease of production was nowhere near what we have today,” he stated.
“It amazes me that people fear GMO foods. It’s ridiculous,” Downes said. “If more people understood biology, chemistry, biochemistry – they wouldn’t be.”
Along with spending time at West Virginia University, Michigan State, Washington State and Texas Tech – Downes served in multiple national aid programs which stationed him in Brazil, South Africa and Argentina. At one point, he worked for the Rockefeller Research Institute, the nation’s oldest biomedical institute.
“I’ve always liked learning, but with enjoying it – I appreciate the benefits,” Downes said.
Witnessing scientific advancements were some of the most pivotal and intriguing elements of his lifetime, he said.
“What science has done from warfare to everyday living,” Downes said, adding that he is particularly impressed with improvements in medicine, chemistry and genetic engineering.
“I’ve enjoyed life,” Downes reflected generally, while emphasizing a few specific blessings. “What I’ve appreciated is getting out of the Depression and having more economic freedom and gains in education.”
He also explained he enjoyed experiencing the “computer evolution” and many “social changes” along the way.
Today, the 100-year-old spends time almost daily at the McMinn Senior Activity Center.
He spoke highly of the opportunities the facility yields, noting that he, personally, has made friends and learned to dance there.
“I think it’s a great place – for the fellowship, the opportunities, for various things,” Downes said. “They have had a lot of good programs.”
When he was 94, he taught Spanish classes there.
Downes survives his wife, Nell Downes, whom he was married to for 58 years.
He has four children, six grandchildren and has enjoyed the company of his caretaker and girlfriend, Jeanette Malone, a fellow center member, for almost 20 years.
Although Downes was unsure how he has lived to be 100, perhaps some of his longevity can be attributed to his attitude.
“You get bumps in the road, but that’s part of life,” he said.