Positivity keeps WWII vet young at heart

(Reggie Ellis)

Fred Leavitt of Exeter celebrates his 100th birthday thanks to a lifetime of being thankful, working hard and trying to find beauty in every day

EXETER – Fred Leavitt of Exeter turned 100 years old on May Day, and his delightful demeanor was proof that positivity is the secret to life and, possibly, the secret to a long-lasting life.

“I’m older than I think I am,” he quipped. “And maybe even a little older than that. But I haven’t got an awful lot to complain about.”

The newly crowned centenarian said he still looks forward to learning new things every day. He said reaching old age is a gift, a season of life where you can take a breath and enjoy the array of brilliant wildflowers of the Valley floor contrasted by the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada in the distance.

“People say, ‘oh, no, it’s raining again.’ They worry about where to put all the water, if we have enough water. But the best part is, people stop and notice and know we all do the best we can to survive.”

Leavitt said he has enjoyed his life locally, which he nearly lived all of in Exeter, and is thankful he did not have to live in Southern California, a sprawling metropolis which has paved over the natural beauty of that place. Instead, he said he has worked in agriculture since he was 3 years old, making a living on the land and watching things change slowly over the last hundred years, with his hometown still retaining a more scenic landscape. He recently moved to a home nestled within orange groves where he can live out his days looking at the citrus he has helped cultivate for a lifetime.

“A nice, ripe navel orange, with its bright orange color. I love everything about it, from the way the flowers smell in the spring, to taking the rind off and getting a zest, and the great end of the work, when you get to eat it,” he said. “People often ask how much it costs to grow oranges. I always tell them, not as much as you think, but it’s worth a lot more than you think.”

In the lead up to World War II, Leavitt enlisted in the Army Air Corps, the precursor for the US Air Force. He was a top turret gunner on a B17 bomber like the one depicted above Monarch Ford’s parking lot down Rocky Hill Drive from his home. He flew 25 missions in the European front and attained the rank of tech sergeant before coming home to farming.

“We flew to foreign countries we didn’t know existed, with people we had never met before, but we had a task to do together and we intended to finish it,” Leavitt said. “We did what we were supposed to do, then came home to be civilians, learning to be good civilians.”

Even though Leavitt lost friends, acquaintances and fellow soldiers along the way, his mind now goes to thanking those who held the line on the ground of the frontlines, the engineers who built the bombers to withstand the trip, the high-ranking officials who strategized the plans, and even the people who made his uniform to keep him warm in the freezing temperatures 27,000 feet in the air.

“Of course, there is tragedy and sorrow, but it’s still fun to be among positive people who are making life what it is, physically, mentally and otherwise,” he said.

Leavitt is among just 1% of World War II veterans who are still alive, according to the National World War II Museum. More than 11,000 surviving WWII veterans are living in California. On average, 131 WWII veterans die each day, meaning there will likely only be a handful left by 2035.

“I feel like I am among the youngest of the old people,” Leavitt said. “It’s been a gift to me so far. I was given an opportunity … some people that I know don’t necessarily say that … but the chances are there for all of us and I just love how it turned out. I could have done better, I’m sure we all could have, but the [country] has done so well and is so well-treated by God.”

Throughout his military career and civilian life, Leavitt said people have always had differing views on the country and its direction. He said a true testament of the country he fought and lives for is the effort of those who strive to make it a better place despite their differences.

“They can love it or hate, but fixing it is harder to do,” Leavitt said. “There are plenty of people willing to assert themselves, and not all will turn out great, but at least they gave it a try.”

Back home, Leavitt made a life with wife Irene. They raised two children, Michael and Patricia. He now has four grandchildren who have children of their own. He said he has tried to impress upon the next generation to do their part to make a positive impact on the world.

“I’ve tried to show them and tried to insist on them doing their fair share to make it good. I hope that is enjoying life the right way.”

He continued, “Try hard at whatever you are trying to do with your life. It doesn’t always have to be young and beautiful. When you get a little older, you get a little better if you just give it half a chance. It’s good because people can see you still have a vigor for life, to just be yourself and a good friend and neighbor.”

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