Local WWII veteran celebrates 100 years

Published 7:06 pm Friday, January 24, 2020

Reaching 100 years is a milestone not many people see, but Harlan MacKendrick wears it well. It’s been a week of celebration for Beaufort County’s newest centenarian, with parties at Backwater Jacks last weekend, the Veterans Administration in Greenville and then Zion Shelter and Kitchen on Friday.

McKendrick was born Jan. 18, 1920 in Attleboro, Massachusetts. The day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, MacKendrick, then 21, was given notice that he and other young men in his community would be drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. A week later, he was on a train to Cheyenne, Wyoming, for training.

As he was boarding the train to leave the station, there was a moment that he credits with contributing to his longevity.

“On the day I left, being drafted, my parents came to the railroad station to send me off,” he recalled. “My mother gave me a bottle of vitamin pills and told me, ‘Take one of these every morning,’ which I’ve done ever since.”

During the course of the war, MacKendrick served as an officer in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, eventually taking a key role in freight logistics for the campaign in Europe. While he never served overseas, he later came to understand just how critical that job was to the war effort.

“I never realized while it was going on how important getting the supplies to the front lines was,” McKendrick said. “But all the supply troops did it, just as much as the front line.”

Once the war ended, he returned to Attleboro to continue work for Swank, Inc., a leading producer of men’s and women’s jewelry. When he learned that the company was closing his division, which involved leatherwork, he heard of an upcoming opportunity in a little town called Belhaven.

“Thom McAn was going to build a shoe factory in Belhaven and had me to set it up and run it,” MacKendrick recalled. “But they haven’t gotten around to building it yet.”’

That was 50 years ago, and MacKendrick has called Beaufort County home ever since. In the time since, he has lived and worked in the area and was a key player in helping establish Washington’s Zion Shelter 35 years ago. He has continued to play an active role at the shelter over the years.

“Certainly, one of the highlights was being involved with the shelter from the very beginning,” MacKendrick said. “To know the whole Harris family; they’ve really done a wonderful job.”

“We started it together, and he has been faithful throughout the years,” Zion Shelter and Kitchen Co-founder Robert Harris added.

Today, at age 100, McKendrick is more active than many people half his age. He keeps a regular routine every week at Washington’s Grace Martin Harwell Senior Center. Mondays and Fridays he does yoga; Tuesdays and Thursdays, he does aerobics; Tuesday afternoons, he paints. Then on Wednesday, he usually takes it easy.

Then, at the tender age of 95, he discovered a new passion with his daughter, Linda Brown. The two decided to try kayaking one day, and have been hooked ever since. Setting out regularly from Inner Banks Outfitters, he and his daughter paddle almost every weekend in the warmer months.

“I enjoy paddling up the peaceful creek, right there at Runyon Creek,” MacKendrick said. “My daughter and I took training sessions from Liane (Harsh). We just enjoy doing it together. … Linda and I are the most active kayakers in the area. We do it more than anybody else, apparently.”

McKendrick also enjoys spending time with his little dog, Marjie, who has showed up on the front page of the Washington Daily News from time to time.

Looking back over 100 years of life, MacKendrick says the most important change he has witnessed has been a steady improvement in racial relations, as well as the advancement of women (who only gained the right to vote the year he was born). He takes pride in the fact that he has always been able to work side-by-side with all people, regardless of their race or gender.

“I’ve gone from where it was strictly men who ran everything, and now for example, the head of General Motors is a woman, and other companies are led by women doing a better job than the men do,” MacKendrick said.

To the young people now coming up in the world, MacKendrick offers one simple, yet important piece of advice: “When you get up in the morning, you’ve got a new day. Just go out and make the most of it.”

Just like Harlan.