107-year-old World War I veteran, Missouri native takes care of centenarian wife in Sun City Center
Managing Editor, Florida Baptist Witness
SUN CITY CENTER (FBW) – Keeping kids warm in a rural one-room schoolhouse in Missouri wasn’t an easy task for young Harry Landis.
Trudging outside in the snow to where two young girls had driven up in their horse and buggy, he patiently snatched a wool blanket over their laps and showed them how to properly tuck it in so the frigid air didn’t grab their legs on the way to school—causing them to complain all day.
At 107, one of the last known veterans of World War I, the war to end all wars, he’s not forgotten how to care.
Reaching over to cover his 100-year-old wife, Eleanor, with a blanket, he plants a kiss on her cheek.
“He likes to be right there by Eleanor’s side,” said Amber Claphan. She is one of several caregivers at the Landis’ assisted living home in Sun City Center and shared information about Landis from fan letters, files and historical archives stored in the family home.
About 4.7 million men and women served in the U.S. armed forces during World War I, which lasted from 1914-1918. About 53,000 died in combat, with another 204,000 wounded.
Landis was born Dec. 12, 1899, on a family farm just outside of Hannibal to Jason and Alice Landis. At 8 years old he went to work rounding up cows to milk. The seventh of eight children, he rode a horse into town to help conduct family business for the farm that is still owned by family members. Going to school was a break. Even if he had to keep the schoolhouse warm.
In 1917 he graduated from Palmyra High School and attended Central College, now Central Methodist University, in Fayette, Mo., where he began work on a degree.
In 1918, a year after America entered the war, Landis figured he was going to be drafted anyway and so he enlisted. He told Claphan the only action he saw was for his sergeant to keep ordering him to mop up after sick recruits in the make-shift sick bay on the fourth-floor dormitory where he was supposed to be learning drilling and military instruction.
Indeed, it seemed the entire region was suffering from the Spanish influenza and because of his healthy constitution, Landis was urged to stay on when nearly all of the nurses quit.
“Every morning he would wake up and he would go back and get the mop and bucket,” Claphan recalled Landis telling her.
Russell Coffey, 108, of North Baltimore, Ohio, is another veteran who enlisted just weeks before the war ended and never got out of training, according to New York Times News Service. A retired college teacher from Bowling Green State University, he gave up driving at 103. He now lives in a nursing home, where aides sometimes hold his hand so he can sign his name for autographs.
Frank Buckles, 106, of Charlestown, W.Va., lied about his age and enlisted at 16. He made it to France but never saw action. He was working in the Philippines in 1941 when the Japanese invaded and put him in a POW camp for three years, said his daughter, Susannah Flanagan. He contracted beriberi and dysentery and left the camp weighing 100 pounds. Though Buckles is rehabilitating from a minor fall, his health remains good, Flanagan said.
Claphan told the Witness Landis particularly enjoys telling one not so positive story about his short stint in the Army. It’s the same every time.
“He likes to tell a story about how he didn’t get his last paycheck,” Claphan chuckled. “He says the sergeant pocketed the money.”
About the time Landis turned 19, the war ended and he was honorably discharged. It is unknown whether he has ever received a special medal awarded by the State of Missouri to WWI Doughboys. He did later sign up to fight the Germans in WWII in 1941, but was rejected for being “too old.”
Returning to school at CMU, he finished his degree in physics and math and taught high school and coached football for three years before eventually becoming a manager at S.S. Kresge Co., which later became K-Mart, in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Dayton, Ohio.
Meanwhile, in the time spanning two centuries and nineteen presidents—in an age which ushered in moving picture shows, telephones, air travel, space shuttles, computers and cell phones—Landis found two great loves.
In 1928, he married Eunice in romantic Niagara Falls. They were married 46 years until she died in 1974 of breast cancer. They had no children.
On Oct. 16, 1976, Landis married Eleanor Martin and they moved to Dayton, Ohio. They have two stepdaughters now in their 70’s who call each day to check up on the couple.
“They’re both lovely people, great people,” Claphan said of Harry and Eleanor Landis. The young caregiver said Landis cares mostly for himself with the exception of being able to button up his shirt each morning. Additionally, he hovers over Eleanor, making sure she is well-attended.
“When I first started he wouldn’t even let me take her out for a walk,” Claphan said. “He’s something else.”
At 107, Landis puts drops in his eyes and takes a daily vitamin. Sometimes he has to lean in to listen hard at what people are saying. A few weeks ago he decided that he wasn’t going to give any more interviews after one television station extended the interview for four hours.
“He does pretty good on his own,” Claphan said, adding that Landis’ advice to people is to “be smart and plan for the future and someday ‘you may live to be 107.’”
Donna Riley, the Landis’ primary caregiver, also had high praise; calling the centenarians the “sweetest people you have ever met.”
On a more serious note, however, Riley, who is an evangelical Christian, said she believes Harry and Eleanor have been more contemplative about matters of faith since faced with the longevity of their lives.
Although they are not what she would call “religious,” and they don’t go to church, they have been studying the Bible and praying with family members for quite a while, Riley said.
“They have prayed the Sinner’s Prayer,” Riley said gently. “Yes, I can say, Harry is a Christian."