RACINE — Clifford Henke wasn’t your typical 109-year-old, but given the fact that he lived to be 109, not much about Henke’s life was typical. He was fiercely independent and marched to the beat of his own drummer.
Henke was also believed to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest man, living in the State of Wisconsin at the time of his death Monday of natural causes.
Doris LaBrasca, Henke’s daughter, said her father was a feisty, spunky and uninhibited man.
“He never thought about age. It was only in the last few months that he really considered himself old,” said LaBrasca of Racine.
Henke was born Aug. 1, 1907, in Oshkosh. His mother died when he was a teenager, leaving him to fend for himself. He eventually landed in Racine.
He met Antoinette (Netty) Schifano while working at the Racine Shoe Co., and the two were married Dec. 3, 1932, in Waukegan, Ill. She died March 24, 1995, after 62 years of marriage.
Henke had four children: Jerry, now of Surprise, Ariz.; LaBrasca and Cheryl King of Racine, and Ralph of London, Tenn. Henke also had nine grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.
Henke was known to enjoy nature, watching ball games and the Animal Planet channel. He also enjoyed music, and played the ukulele and harmonica for more than 80 years, his family said.
He was employed as a machinist by InSinkErator for more than 20 years and retired in 1972.
He also had a special relationship with animals, particularly a house cat named Smokey, LaBrasca said.
“They must have had a sacred relationship because a couple of times, that cat really saved my dad’s life,” LaBrasca said. One time, Smokey alerted her father to a sweet potato that had caught fire in his microwave. Smokey would also bring Henke, who suffered from hearing loss, his hearing aid.
Aside from hearing loss, the 109-year-old never needed to take medication and read the paper each morning without the assistance of reading glasses, his family said.
“They called him the iron man because he had fallen many, many times, but he had never broken anything,” LaBrasca said.
Henke even lived in his own Mount Pleasant home until June 2015, when a fall from his stoop while reaching for his morning paper caused him to be hospitalized.
“He had not been in a hospital since he was 60, so needless to say, when he was in the emergency room, he was fit to be tied,” LaBrasca said. “He was so scared, and he was making a terrible fuss. They heard him all over that emergency room.”
“There were just no filters with him,” Pam Locke, Henke’s granddaughter, said.
Henke was then moved to ManorCare Health Services in Kenosha, where LaBrasca said Henke attempted to escape at least 14 times.
“ManorCare nursing home was great, by the way,” LaBrasca said. “Loving and wonderful, but he would go in all the other areas and they would have to be looking for him.
“They couldn’t believe his strength for 98 pounds. He had such a strong, iron-will determination. He was trying to get away from (one of the nurses), and she was holding on and he’s just dragging her,” LaBrasca said, laughing.
“He wasn’t afraid to be uninhibited and shout out stuff,” LaBrasca said. “That was just his demeanor. That’s just who he was.”
“He never thought about age. It was only in the last few months that he really considered himself old.” Doris LaBrasca, Clifford Henke’s daughter