Return of the Century: 100-Year-Old Man Recalls Coast-to-Coast Tour of Lincoln Highway

In 1928, Bernard Queneau visited the area at 16 as part of a national safety tour of Lincoln Highway. In 2012, Queneau, now 100, returns to see the mural commemorating that trip.

The first time Bernard Queneau rolled through along the Lincoln Highway, he did it as a passenger, sitting on a wood bench in an old REO Speed Wagon, accompanied by three other fellow Eagle Scouts.

On his most recent trip to the area, he drove the local stretch of U.S. Route 30 in a Buick sedan outfitted with cushioned seats, air-conditioning and an OnStar navigation system. This time his second wife, Esther, joined him, splitting the driving duties.

That last visit was this past week, Thursday, Sept. 6. The first visit, however, was in June of 1928. Bernie, as his wife calls him, was a month away from his 16th birthday.

For those who did the quick math in your heads, yes, that does indeed make Queneau 100 years old, which he'll tell you earns him the distinction as the "ultimate collectible" for the Lincoln Highway, especially now that he's been immortalized in a mural commemorating the roadway that adorns the .

, and it was the first time Queneau saw it in person. The mural depicts Queneau and other Eagle Scouts and Boy Scout masters on their coast-to-coast safety tour of the then-new nationwide highway. In fact, an excerpt from Queneau's diary during the trip is part of the display:

We did three little good road turns: Pushed a car from a ditch, helped change a flat, and lent some gasoline.

"If we hadn't been 16-years-old, we wouldn't have been able to stand it," Queneau said of the traveling conditions during the tour, which had the scouts giving daily safety demonstrations and erecting concrete markers. "It was 3,000 miles on a wooden bench, and it was all dirt roads after the Mississippi."

"Except for the towns," added Esther, a former courts reporter and member of the Illinois Lincoln Highway Coalition who has been documenting her second husband's personal history since they married in 2003.

Winning Big by Losing

Queneau, who was born in Belgium in 1912 and now lives in Pittsburgh, became part of the Lincoln Highway cross-country trip thanks to a Boy Scouts contest, one that he actually lost.

"The competition was to go to Africa," Queneau said, adding that it was only open to Eagle Scouts, and he had to submit an essay as part of it. "They picked three [scouts] to do that, and the four losers were picked to go on this trip across the country."

As one of the seven finalists, Queneau, who was living in New Rochelle, N.Y., at the time, was "wined and dined" for four days in and around New York City by the selection committee, he said. But Queneau half-jokingly suspects that his familiarity with the city during those soirees—mixed with a bit of teenage brashness—might have cost him the grand prize.

"Probably one of the reasons I lost was I knew New York too well, and I kind of poo-pooed some of the fantastic entertaining we were having," he recalled, laughing. "And that was not a very smart idea. For a 15-year-old, I was probably a smart ass."

During those days before the winners were announced, however, did afford Queneau the once-in-a-lifetime—once-in-two-lifetimes?—opportunity of hobnobbing with the contest's well-known judges. In fact, publisher, contest judge and "honorary Boy Scout" George P. Putnam opened his Oyster Bay residence to the contestants. That's how Queneau rubbed shoulders with an aviator who had recently made Putnam's acquaintance and who would later go on to become the media baron's second wife.

"I got to shake the hand of Amelia Earhart," he said of that meeting.

And Earhart wasn't the only celebrity of the time who Queneau met thanks to the trip. Once the tour was over, the Boy Scouts sent the teens back home in a more comfortable car and turned the return trip into a sightseeing affair. They made stops at the Grand Canyon and Hollywood, where Queneau met film legends Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

"There weren't that many people who knew the United States as well as we did," Queneau said of the experience.

Still a Romantic After 100 Years

What makes Queneau such a remarkable man to talk to is that his car tour across a still-growing United States was just the beginning of an adventurous life he can still recall with precise clarity in a voice that still carries a hint of an Old World accent:

  • In the fall of 1928, Queneau began studying at Columbia University (he graduated high school before the trip at the age of 15), earning his bachelor's degree and a masters in metallurgical engineering in just five years.
  • In 1936, he got his doctorate from the University of Minnesota and returned to Columbia as a professor.
  • During World War II, he volunteered in the ordinance division of the Naval Reserves and eventually earned the rank of commander.
  • After the war, he began a career with U.S. Steel that lasted more than 30 years. During that time, he worked as the company's chief metallurgist and as general manager for quality control.

And that just takes you up to age 65.

Esther Queneau, though, captures what makes Bernie so special. The two have known each other since 1997, when Esther needed a banquet speaker for the Lincoln Highway Association's national banquet in Mansfield, Ohio. They didn't meet again until 2002, when they began their 10-years-and-counting romance.

"He's such a sweetheart," she said. "He's a gourmet cook. He's a romantic at heart. When I visited for the first time, he had roses and champagne and chocolates."

And maybe that's part of the secret to Bernie's longevity. Keeping romance alive after a century on this Earth means loving life with all your heart.


Get news alerts and Facebook updates from these Lincoln-Way Patch sites:

Michele V September 11, 2012 at 02:33 PM
What a lovely story!
Mrs Kellog September 11, 2012 at 04:37 PM
Bernard was particularly impressed with what New Lenox has done with it's stretch of Rt 30 in the past century. Sooo many improvements. " Beautiful, absolutely beautiful " he said. "I can see why they are the Home of Proud Americans" he added.
Rachel Gilmore September 12, 2012 at 03:47 PM
Wonderful story, Joe! Wish there was room to share all of the "extras" that I'm sure Bernard shared. What a great interview :)
Esther McNaull Queneau September 13, 2012 at 12:59 AM
It was such a thrill when Bernie and I first saw the Eagle Scout mural! Memories flooded back for Bernie as he recalled the outbound trip in the REO Speedwagon and the return trip in the Hudson touring car. Bernie is the only one left, but we are in contact with the children of two other Eagles. A little clarification with regard to the judges of the contest may be needed. The three judges were: Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who entertained the Scouts at his home in Oyster Bay; George Putnam Jr., the publisher and friend of Amelia Earhart, and who also entertained the seven finalists; and Scout Executive James E. West. One of the Eagles who went to Africa still survives, and we are in contact with him. He also turned 100 in late July. Bernie is a pretty incredible person and has had an amazing life. I feel so fortunate to be a part of his later life. Esther McNaull Queneau
Audrey Bronk November 30, 2012 at 07:24 PM
My husband and I met Bernie and Esther in 2003 on the coast to coast LHA tour. So happy to know they are both well and still travelling. We plan to make the tour in 2013 along with several friends we met on the trip.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »