One man’s secret to hitting triple digits |

One man’s secret to hitting triple digits

Jarid Shipley
Appeal Staff Writer
Kevin Clifford/Nevada AppealRoderick "Red" Watson sits in his room at the Mountain Springs Assisted Living Community Thursday as he waits to celebrate his 100th birthday on Saturday. Watson has had a lifetime of memories such as fighting in World War II, serving for the Virginia City Mounted Possee and being inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

During his life, Roderick “Red” Watson has heard news of the unsinkable ship slipping beneath the waves, watched in horror at the destruction of Pearl Harbor and been recognized by more than one president. He has been married three times, once to the woman he calls the love of his life, lived in three countries and had five children.

In nine days, he will add another milestone to his already brimming memory as he adds a third digit to his age and becomes a centenarian.

Yet in the annals of his mind, all that is secondary to the fact that he was – and by his own admission still is – a cowboy.

“My whole life is a memory and I have lots of them. I like being a cattle herder, you would call that a cowboy now,” Watson said. “I’ve rode too many horses to brag because some of them bucked me really good.”

Watson was born in Scotland on Jan. 29, 1906, and moved to Canada when he was 7. At 16, he went to work for the Douglas Lake Cattle Co. in Vancouver, B.C.

“I carried a 30/30 rifle on my shoulder from the time I was 16 until World War II,” Watson said.

Watson then joined the Canadian military as an intelligence officer, spending a good portion of that time on Canada’s west coast.

“We were all on the Pacific Coast expecting that the Japanese were going to come over. You could hear planes flying overhead in the dark and a voice would say ‘those are our boys, don’t fire,'” Watson said.

After the war, Watson journeyed to the United States and began touring the country playing the banjo.

“You never took yourself seriously because there was always somebody better,” he said.

Watson spent years traveling the country picking his banjo, playing the same Vaudeville circuit as legends like Sammy Davis Jr., before being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“I didn’t try to be a big shot. I never expected anything like that. We just played for the people,” Watson said.

Along the way, he took up painting, his favorite medium being watercolors because it allowed him to reconnect with the open spaces he loved.

“There are so many beautiful places. I do a lot of painting because I liked the places,” Watson said. “I love the look of the country, even during the tough days.”

He retired in Virginia City, where he returned to riding horseback when he became a member of the Virginia City Mounted Posse. He moved into the Mountain Springs Assisted Living Community at the age of 99. He continued to play the banjo into his 80s, until a mild stroke prevented him from forming the cords.

For his 80th birthday President Reagan sent him a letter and Watson said he expects one from President Bush when he hits a century.

Along the way Watson married three women. The first in Canada who gave him three daughters and a son. After her death, Watson married his second wife and had his daughter Tanya Millim, 44, of Carson City. After their divorce, Watson met and married the woman who he describes as the love of his life, Sue Ellen Wolfgram in 1970. He was 64, she was 26. She died four years ago.

Watson said he didn’t know what love was, adding only that “when you find it, you know.”

With his second century looming, Watson said he has only one goal.

“I don’t have any particular goals because, at my age, I don’t know how long I will be here. After my stroke I can’t make the simplest cords, but I will play again,” Watson said.

His secrets to longevity? Modesty and silence.

“Keep your mouth shut. You learn more that way,” Watson said. “Don’t brag ’cause it will come back to bite you.”

Though Watson’s recollections span his entire life, daughter Tanya said her favorites are more specific.

“As a little girl he would put me on top of his cowboy boots. I would wrap my arms around his legs and he would walk with me,” Millim said. “I remember sitting in the back of the stage for the really big shows when he was performing and seeing the lights reflect off the gold rim of the banjo as he would spin it.”

Watson is celebrating his birthday with family and friends on Saturday.

For all his knowledge and experiences, one thing still baffles Watson – how he made it to 100 years old.

“I should have been shot already,” Watson exclaimed.

n Contact reporter Jarid Shipley at or 881-1217.