Living to the Fullest: At 105, Mesa woman still has a zest for life

Nora Leesley continues to stay involved in politics, losing no interest even after living through 25 presidential administrations. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

By Mark Moran

Mesa resident Nora Leesley wants to know why she didn’t received her absentee ballot for the recent election.

At age 105, she still has a vivid interest in politics.

Born in 1917, Leesley has lived through 25 presidential administrations — she was born during Woodrow Wilson’s term but liked Dwight Eisenhower the best.

Growing up, she rode her horse four miles each morning past the farm where the outlaw Jesse James and his family lived to a one-room school that housed grades 1-8 in Kearney, Missouri, population 500. 

“I never wanted to miss a day of school,” Leesley recalls. “Now they close the roads and they have buses. I never missed a day of school.”

Her mother taught all eight of those grades.

“She rode side-saddle horse to school,” Leesley says. “Made her own fire and all that stuff. Just a country school. This day and age, she would have been teacher of the year. Everybody called her Miss Emma. She was strict, but all the kids loved her.”

Nora had a brother and sister, both older. 

And there was no sugarcoating it, she says: Life was just plain difficult for her family.

“We lived on a farm,” she says. “We went through hard, hard, hard times. We had nothing … like everybody else. Went through the Depression. All of our crops died. My dad was a farmer. The house burned when I was about 7 years old. We lost everything we had. I don’t think we ever really recovered from that.

“Dad had a lot of hard luck. Lightning struck his team of mules, and that was his means of plowing the field. We didn’t have tractors and all that stuff.

“I grew up with no running water, no electricity, no anything. We hauled the water up the hill from the well to the kitchen. It was a hard life.”

She says she and her family lived a sparse and modest life that had one saving grace: There was always music in the house.

“Mother was a good pianist. She gave lessons before she was married. My sister and I took piano lessons, and both of us took violin lessons. My brother played the trumpet. Dad played the harmonica,” she says. 

“That was our entertainment. My cousin played the violin and banjo. Another played the saxophone. We just made our own entertainment.”

Leesley earned a college scholarship when she graduated high school in 1935 but ended up not using it.

“I got married instead of getting that piece of paper,” she says.

 She married her high school principal and moved with him to Durango, Colorado, where they spent all they had to buy a $2,000 home in 1936. 

“Furnished,” she says. “It was nothing. But it was ours. It recently sold for over a million.

“You make your way on what you have. You don’t live beyond your means. That’s the whole problem with the young people today. Everything goes on plastic.”

Some years later, her husband, Harvey Hollar, retired from teaching and went into politics as a county commissioner in Durango. That’s where Leesley earned her stripes as a back-office political worker bee.

“I was very active,” she says.

That’s an understatement.

“Typing about 5,000 letters on the clunky typewriter. A mountain of envelopes. I addressed them all. Filled out all the sheets to mail out to everybody. Worked day and night in all our spare time getting that done. We walked the whole town door to door, knocking on doors soliciting votes. And he won. Every time. He never lost an election, and he had five of them.”

To this day Leesley does not consider herself partisan.

“Mark Kelly, I definitely want him,” she says of the Arizona Democratic senator. She also likes Karrin Taylor Robson, a conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate.

“I’ve never yet voted a straight ticket,” she says. “I vote for the person that I think is best for the job. To heck with whichever party. In fact, I’d just as soon be independent as either a Democratic or Republican.”

Leesley doesn’t exactly have the parental genes for longevity. Her mother died at 62 from influenza and her father at 57 from a heart attack.

“I don’t know why I have lived so long. I’ve outlived all my family, all my friends.”  

But somehow, here she sits, lively, sharp as a tack, having sidestepped or been spared all of the maladies that typically accompany old age.

 She does lean on a walker and takes the occasional breath of bottled oxygen. But by and large, Leesley looks like she still has plenty of life to live.

Her advice? “Love the Lord. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. And don’t have tattoos,” she says.

And don’t have enemies. “I don’t have a single enemy in this world. I have outlived them all.”