Bill Kwis was given up for adoption at birth, lost his adopted mother a year later when she died from complications brought on by diabetes, then was sent off to live with strangers by his adopted father.
The Kennewick man spent his childhood trying to connect to a family he never had and ended up feeling lost and alone most of the time. A sad story for most people, but Kwis doesn’t dwell on unhappy events in his life. He prefers to celebrate the good things that have happened to him instead.
Kwis, who turns 100 years old today, admits he spent much of his youth afraid of being abandoned again. But today, as he reflects on the last century of his life, that lost boy is nowhere to be seen. He’s as happy today as he was when he married his wife Alice in 1940 when he was 26 years old. That marriage lasted 48 years until her death in 1987.
“I am the luckiest man in the world and have nothing to bitch about,” he said. “I’ve had a great life. I’m healthy. I have a great son and the love of a wonderful woman.”
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He’ll celebrate his milestone birthday with his son Ron Kwis of Kennewick and all the grandkids, as well as his current love Velda Ridgeway, 78, who lives in the same apartment complex. He might even go dancing.
Though Kwis admits to be a bit of a handful as a youngster, his son remembers his father as sweet and playful and never mean.
“He’s always been a great dad,” Ron said. “Whatever I was into as a kid, both my parents were supportive. They got involved with whatever I was interested in.”
The elder Kwis was born and raised in Hollywood, and for a time worked in the film industry driving cars for the studio and teaching actors how to drive a Model T.
He also worked at a service station for Shell Oil in Hollywood.
“A lot of stars came into that service station, like John Wayne and Clark Gable,” Kwis said. “John would always stop and talk with me before pulling out. He was pretty young back then, but so was I.”
After his son was born in 1943, Kwis went to work for North American Aviation as a mechanic, and during World War II he helped train soldiers to fix airplanes, which prevented him from being drafted, he said.
Kwis moved to the Tri-City area after his wife died to be closer to his son who’d moved here years before. He likes the area, but there’s still a lot of the sunny California boy left in him, he said.
“I love the people here,” he said. “But the weather here stinks.”
As for how the world has changed in the past 100 years, Kwis said he likes some of those changes but still misses the simpler way of life.
“When I was a kid, people didn’t have to lock their doors. I miss that,” he said. “And people don’t talk to each other as much either. But I do like the cellphones, and I love television.”
There is one thing Kwis said he would love to have for his birthday: a card wishing him a happy 100 years from President Obama.
“But he has to sign that card himself,” he said. “It can’t be a stamped signature. I would be so grateful if he’d actually sign it himself. But that probably won’t happen, will it?”