Irene Lilley said she feels much younger than the 90 years she celebrated on Sunday.
Lilley, a Canyon Country resident, turned 90 on April 4 and celebrated Sunday with her family and friends at the home her grandparents built and that she lived in all her life. Lilley is married to actor and stuntman Jack Lilley, 85, who received a star on Santa Clarita’s Walk of Western Stars in 2008.
“It’s been heaven living here all these years, and my husband could keep all his horses and still go to work close by, so we just stayed here while the rest of Santa Clarita changed,” Lilley said. “I never thought I would live to 90. I still do all the things like cook, take care of my husband and I could drive, but I don’t since I had an operation on my leg.”
Lilley’s first cousins, Henry Balsz and Susan “Twilly” Baker, came back to the family ranch to celebrate with her. Balsz said he has nothing but fond memories of running around the property with Lilley and their other relatives and that the joy he felt being able to be with his cousin was not something that he could explain with words.
“I came all the way from Colorado, so this is a special day for us,” Baker said. “Most of the elders in the family are gone, and it’s just me and my first cousins that are really left from that generation.”
Western way of life
A picture available on SCVHistory.com demonstrated Irene Madrid Lilley’s roots in the Santa Clarita Valley. She’s sitting cross-legged in the K-8 Honby School photo from 1938, which was the year of the “Great Flood” (lesser known than the San Francisquito Dam disaster, the “50-year storm” was not as deadly, but still managed to claim more than 100 lives by estimates available on the local history website).
The flood ultimately washed away the school that year, according to local historians, but Irene’s family remained, living on a ranch in an area that at the time was known as Honby, but would likely be considered part of Canyon Country today.
In Santa Clarita, Irene also met and married Western stuntman Jack Lilley, who’s credited with more than 280 roles in movies, as well sa such well-known television shows as “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza” and “High Chaparral,” among many others.
The couple also founded Movin’ on Livestock, a family business that supplies “performing livestock, cast and nondescript livestock, and other relevant animals,” according to the company’s website. The company facilitated the animals for Hollywood films such as both “City Slickers” movies and, more recently, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”
A community that cares
Lilley’s youngest son, Clint, told stories about how generous, adventurous and tough she was when he grew up. For example, he told of how she paid for a family friend to attend college or how, even into her 80s, she would drive Clint to the park to help him walk as part of his physical therapy after an accident.
“She is the oak tree that everybody would cling to, and she raised half the kids in the neighborhood,” Clint said. “She grew up in the Depression era, so she knew what it was like to have nothing and didn’t want anyone else to feel like that. It’s almost surreal because I don’t think of her as being 90. I try to keep her mind sharp by asking her if she remembers where she was during certain historic events, and I’m amazed by the things she’s seen in this world.”
Stacy McWatters has known Lilley since she was 8 years old and considers the nonagenarian to be her mother.
“I lost my mom when I was really young and, after that, Irene took me in along with some other kids who hung out here,” McWatters said. “They called us the ranch kids, and we played here and had our horses here, and it was our life. Irene taught me to be a good, honest person and to take care of other people who need help because, over the years, she selflessly and unabashedly has opened up her home and her heart to so many people.”
Lilley credits her longevity to her faith in God and said her proudest achievement is raising her family.
“I know that the dear Lord is here with me and I believe in Him and He believes in me,” she said. “Life is still good to me. I want to be here for my family. They’re all great people, and we’ve never had any problems, so I also thank the Lord that they were here with me today.”