GRESHAM, Ore. -- For some, picking up a new hobby can be daunting. Mastering it, even harder. But that’s not the case for 97-year-old Lisle Meloy of Gresham.
Meloy, whose friends call him "Bill," has always loved ukulele music. His favorite vacations are the ones he took to Hawaii with his wife, Helen, now deceased.
“One of the things I really enjoyed the most in Hawaii is the music,” Meloy said. “It’s pretty hard to beat.”
But it wasn’t until five years ago, when Meloy was 92, that he decided to try his hand at making the delicate guitar-like instruments.
Meloy sits at home in front of four finished ukuleles
After his first try yielded a “first-class ukulele,” he decided to keep going. So far, he’s made 23 ukuleles and has sold nearly half of them to friends and musicians.
“It turned out to be a pretty nice hobby,” he said. “It’s such an involved process.”
Meloy walks with a bit of a shuffle, but that doesn’t stop him from the physical labor of building the ukuleles. He crafts them in his garage, which is filled with tools and machinery used to heat, bend and cut the specialty Hawaiian and African woods he sources for them.
“The most involved part is bending the wood. That’s critical,” he said. “It doesn’t always turn out the way you think it’s going to be. Sometimes you use too much heat and burn the wood. Sometimes the wood cracks.”
Meloy, working on a ukulele in his garage
But under Meloy’s careful eye, each instrument has emerged nearly flawless. The wood gleams and the musicians say the sound is impeccable.
This isn’t the first hobby Meloy has immersed himself in. When he was in his 60s, he took up oil painting. Now, many of those detailed landscapes line his walls.
He also has been collecting antique radios nearly all of his life, and radios ranging from the size of toasters to pianos are scattered throughout his house.
“I’ve been into radios since day one,” Meloy said.
A photo of Meloy's wife, Helen, is displayed on top of an antique radio
Meloy is also a master gardener, filling his dining room with starts in the winter and moving the seedlings to his outdoor garden beds once the cold Oregon rains subside in the spring.
Meloy said it’s his hobbies that have kept him feeling young for so long. He worked for many years in construction and maintenance, first for himself then at Portland State University. But he said the secret to his longevity is pursuing passions outside of work.
“Do the things you want to do for recreation,” he said. “Get something that you just love to do.”
Now, at 97, it’s building ukuleles that Meloy loves most. They bring back fond memories of his trips to Hawaii, which slowed after Helen died in 1989 and stopped altogether about five years ago.
Meloy lives alone now. He wears a Life Alert necklace, and is visited for a few hours each day by a neighbor. His two daughters stop by as much as they can, but Meloy said he’s often lonely. His ex-girlfriend, who just turned 100, recently moved to a nursing home.
Meloy's original oil paintings line his home's walls
“I never thought much about old age, then all of a sudden it was here,” he said.
But he still continues to make the instruments that have brought him so much joy.
Now, Meloy is measuring his life in ukuleles.
“I’m counting out about two at a time,” he said.
Lisle Meloy continues to sell his handmade ukuleles from his home in Gresham. To purchase a ukulele, call 503-667-8109.
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