Birthday blowout planned for Oak Harbor centenarian

— Created April 20, 2022 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

All of Whidbey is invited to help celebrate a special occasion 100 years in the making.

Gene Phelps, owner of Gene’s Art and Frame in Oak Harbor, just turned 100 years old, and there will be a community birthday bash in his honor Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. at the store on Pioneer Way. Enjoy an opportunity to share personal birthday greetings, have a slice of cake and other refreshments and even make a little gift for the new centenarian.

“We’re inviting anyone and everyone who’d like to celebrate Gene,” said Linnane Armstrong, longtime store manager. “We’ll have activities set up where people can paint rocks as a gift to Gene so he can make a rock garden as a commemoration of his party and his centennial celebration. Alternatively, people can also bring a rock that’s already painted.”

There will also be giveaways from some of the store’s vendors who wanted to join in the fun by giving art supplies back to the community.

Gene’s Art and Frame has been a fixture in Oak Harbor for 55 years. Even at 100, Phelps makes it a point to come into work just about every afternoon. For the most part, he says he still feels about the same as he did when he was younger.

“It feels okay [to be 100],” he said, sitting in front of the rolltop desk tucked away in the back of the store. “I feel the same as when I was 20. I’ve always been very active – walking, riding bikes almost daily, and I always felt good about that.”

Phelps was born in New Orleans, La., in 1922. He joined the Navy Reserves before World War II and was called up to active duty during the war. He served just shy of five years when all was said and done, then went to work in construction. He traveled around the country with the company he was with, building military housing. But Oak Harbor caught his eye, and this is where he decided to settle with his family.

“I thought Oak Harbor was such a nice place,” he said. “It was very quiet and the kids could play in the streets; the cars would hardly ever come by. So, I said this is probably the place we should be, so I decided to move here. But I didn’t have a job. So I went down to Maylor’s and I charged some things – that was really the only store in town. Then I went into the painting and drywall business.”

Phelps opened a paint store and eventually began adding art supplies to the mix.

“There was a little display of a few little art supplies and so I said, ‘Let’s get some more of that,’ so we did,” he said. “Finally we built up this art business. When we moved down here, I decided we’d maybe go into the picture framing business as well, but I was still working as a contractor. They’d take orders during the day and at nighttime after work, I’d go down and cut frames and mats until we got established well and found people that could do the work.”

Eventually, Phelps said he was finally able to work at the store himself, which he loved.

“I used to go in the front and take orders and I had so many wonderful people, I had so many friends,” he said. “But they’re all gone now. I don’t see any of them anymore, but I just enjoyed those people and I enjoyed the business. I just was always interested in running it and ordering stuff. I was just at home here.”

“I think his work ethic keeps him young,” said Armstrong. “He works very consistently, hardly misses a day coming into the store. He’s a very caring and dedicated boss and it really has been a pleasure to work for him over the years.

“It feels very special to know someone who’s reached that [milestone],” she continued. “It’s not just age. It’s what he’s seen and what he knows and his outlook is so inspiring, because he doesn’t see this as slowing down or anything.”

In his soft-spoken voice, Phelps said he’s always been content over the years, although he did acknowledge he’s seen his share of changes.

“It’s so different now than when I was young,” he said. “It’s changed completely, this world. All the computer business and all that; we never had anything like that. When we went to school, we did ABC’s. We didn’t have all that computer stuff, so it’s a big change there.”

But as it is sometimes said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“One of the things people love about the store is, while we’ve updated a little bit, in a lot of ways it’s the same, so it’s kind of nostalgic for people to shop here,” Armstrong said.

In addition to Saturday’s birthday bash, Phelps will also serve as the grand marshal at the upcoming Holland Happening parade. He said he’s not sure about all this attention.

“I’m not used to all the whoop-de-do,” he said with a soft laugh. “Sometimes I don’t feel like I deserve all that. You know, what did I do to be such a prominent person? I’m just average. But, anyway, I want to do [the parade] because I think the two great-grandchildren are going to ride with me and they’ll have something to remember when they get older.”

When asked if he has had a favorite thing over his 100 years on Earth, such as being a dad, or a business owner or serving in the military, he reflected for a moment.

“I think it’s a combination of all of those,” Phelps said thoughtfully. “I don’t know if I could pick out a favorite. I think I was content with all of it. I’ve always been pretty happy.”

His best advice for people hoping to reach the century mark themselves is basically to keep calm and carry on.

“I would say stay active, be active all the time, don’t let things get you down, don’t worry,” he said. “I mean, just try to be the same all the time, don’t get all excited and worried. Just be yourself.”

For fellow business owners, Phelps said they should try to stick with it.

“To be in business, you have to stay with it,” he said. “You just have to be persistent. There are times when it’s not too good. You just have to go through those periods and live with it. I guess that’s it.”

And when times are tough, he knows what works for him.

“I never had much problem with that, but I do think the Lord takes care of me. He’s always on my side, I really believe that. I go to Him a lot.,” said Phelps.

As far as the next 100 years, his plan is simple.

“Well, to still stay in business and enjoy it,” he said, smiling.