Return of the Century: 100-Year-Old Man Recalls Coast-to-Coast Tour of Lincoln Highway
In 1928, Bernard Queneau visited the area at 16 as part of a national safety tour of Lincoln Highway. In 2012, Queneau, now 100, returns to see the mural commemorating that trip.
The first time Bernard Queneau rolled through Frankfort along the Lincoln Highway, he did it as a passenger, sitting on a wood bench in an old REO Speed Wagon, accompanied by three other fellow Eagle Scouts.
On his most recent trip to the area, he drove the local stretch of U.S. Route 30 in a Buick sedan outfitted with cushioned seats, air-conditioning and an OnStar navigation system. This time his second wife, Esther, joined him, splitting the driving duties.
That last visit was this past week, Thursday, Sept. 6. The first visit, however, was in June of 1928. Bernie, as his wife calls him, was a month away from his 16th birthday.
For those who did the quick math in your heads, yes, that does indeed make Queneau 100 years old, which he'll tell you earns him the distinction as the "ultimate collectible" for the Lincoln Highway, especially now that he's been immortalized in a mural commemorating the roadway that adorns the Frankfort Township Building.
The artwork was unveiled late last year, and it was the first time Queneau saw it in person. The mural depicts Queneau and other Eagle Scouts and Boy Scout masters on their coast-to-coast safety tour of the then-new nationwide highway. In fact, an excerpt from Queneau's diary during the trip is part of the display:
We did three little good road turns: Pushed a car from a ditch, helped change a flat, and lent some gasoline.
"If we hadn't been 16-years-old, we wouldn't have been able to stand it," Queneau said of the traveling conditions during the tour, which had the scouts giving daily safety demonstrations and erecting concrete markers. "It was 3,000 miles on a wooden bench, and it was all dirt roads after the Mississippi."
"Except for the towns," added Esther, a former courts reporter and member of the Illinois Lincoln Highway Coalition who has been documenting her second husband's personal history since they married in 2003.
Winning Big by Losing
Queneau, who was born in Belgium in 1912 and now lives in Pittsburgh, became part of the Lincoln Highway cross-country trip thanks to a Boy Scouts contest, one that he actually lost.
"The competition was to go to Africa," Queneau said, adding that it was only open to Eagle Scouts, and he had to submit an essay as part of it. "They picked three [scouts] to do that, and the four losers were picked to go on this trip across the country."
As one of the seven finalists, Queneau, who was living in New Rochelle, N.Y., at the time, was "wined and dined" for four days in and around New York City by the selection committee, he said. But Queneau half-jokingly suspects that his familiarity with the city during those soirees—mixed with a bit of teenage brashness—might have cost him the grand prize.
"Probably one of the reasons I lost was I knew New York too well, and I kind of poo-pooed some of the fantastic entertaining we were having," he recalled, laughing. "And that was not a very smart idea. For a 15-year-old, I was probably a smart ass."
During those days before the winners were announced, however, did afford Queneau the once-in-a-lifetime—once-in-two-lifetimes?—opportunity of hobnobbing with the contest's well-known judges. In fact, publisher, contest judge and "honorary Boy Scout" George P. Putnam opened his Oyster Bay residence to the contestants. That's how Queneau rubbed shoulders with an aviator who had recently made Putnam's acquaintance and who would later go on to become the media baron's second wife.
"I got to shake the hand of Amelia Earhart," he said of that meeting.
And Earhart wasn't the only celebrity of the time who Queneau met thanks to the trip. Once the tour was over, the Boy Scouts sent the teens back home in a more comfortable car and turned the return trip into a sightseeing affair. They made stops at the Grand Canyon and Hollywood, where Queneau met film legends Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
"There weren't that many people who knew the United States as well as we did," Queneau said of the experience.
Still a Romantic After 100 Years
What makes Queneau such a remarkable man to talk to is that his car tour across a still-growing United States was just the beginning of an adventurous life he can still recall with precise clarity in a voice that still carries a hint of an Old World accent:
- In the fall of 1928, Queneau began studying at Columbia University (he graduated high school before the trip at the age of 15), earning his bachelor's degree and a masters in metallurgical engineering in just five years.
- In 1936, he got his doctorate from the University of Minnesota and returned to Columbia as a professor.
- During World War II, he volunteered in the ordinance division of the Naval Reserves and eventually earned the rank of commander.
- After the war, he began a career with U.S. Steel that lasted more than 30 years. During that time, he worked as the company's chief metallurgist and as general manager for quality control.
And that just takes you up to age 65.
Esther Queneau, though, captures what makes Bernie so special. The two have known each other since 1997, when Esther needed a banquet speaker for the Lincoln Highway Association's national banquet in Mansfield, Ohio. They didn't meet again until 2002, when they began their 10-years-and-counting romance.
"He's such a sweetheart," she said. "He's a gourmet cook. He's a romantic at heart. When I visited for the first time, he had roses and champagne and chocolates."
And maybe that's part of the secret to Bernie's longevity. Keeping romance alive after a century on this Earth means loving life with all your heart.
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