(Florida Times-Union) -- World War II veteran Larry Lawson celebrated his 100th birthday Saturday — just a wee bit early — with hugs and cheers from friends and family including a contingent of relatives who traveled from Down Under to share in the special occasion.
Lawson of Jacksonville officially turns 100 Tuesday. But his daughter, Lorraine Clancy, and his son, Lawrence Lawson, launched the celebration three days early with a special luncheon at his Cypress Village apartment complex — attended by 53 guests including 11 members of the Australian branch of their late mother’s family as well as his friends and neighbors.
During World War II, Lawson served as a sergeant with the 1st Marine Division of the U.S. Marine Corps fighting in the Pacific. A native of Northern Ohio, he enlisted because he wanted to serve his country and defend it.
The war changed his life, Clancy said.
Clancy said her dad was among hundreds of Allied troops sent to Ballarat, Australia, in 1943 for a brief respite in Victoria Park. Clancy said local residents like her future grandmother, who sang and played the piano, would host the soldiers at dances in the church halls.
Her future mother, Elwyn, also sang. It was at one of those dances that the couple who would become her parents first met, Clancy said.
“It was love at first sight,” Lawson said of his beloved wife. “I looked across the room and said ‘she’s the one.’ So, I made my way across and made my acquaintance. It was true love.”
Lawson said the war kept them apart for three years after they got engaged right before he shipped out to Guadacanal but their love for one another never wavered nor waned.
“My mom also joined the Women’s Air Corps in Australia and was stationed in Darwin where the Japanese actually invaded,” said Clancy, explaining her mom’s assignment back then was to keep that invasion a secret from the populace so that there would not be general panic.
“When the war in the Pacific was over in 1946, my mom bugged the Australian government until they finally retrofitted one of their warships to allow the Australian sweethearts of American GI’s to sail to the United States to be reunited,” she said.
That was the prelude, Clancy said, to her parents’ life together.
“Can you imagine not seeing your fiancee for three years during a world war and then sailing halfway around the world to a foreign country to marry, leaving your parents, three brothers and two sisters?” said Clancy, noting she has lots of Australian cousins including those at her dad’s birthday party.
“They were married in San Francisco where the ship docked. Mom told the story that some people in our little hometown of Willard, Ohio, were not aware that Australia was actually an English speaking country and thought she was going to be in a native costume with a bone in her hair,” Clancy said.
As their love story continued, the couple worked side by side in a florist business for 40 years that Clancy said her paternal grandmother had founded with her family, who had immigrated from Holland in the early 1900s.
After he retired in 1984, the couple moved to Ponte Vedra Beach.
Elwyn C. Lawson passed away May 10, 2012. She was 92.
“We had almost 66 years together,” he said of his beloved.
That her family members traveled all the way from Melbourne, Australia, for his birthday made it even more special.
“Some of them are my best friends, ” Lawson said with a grin as he looked at his in-laws who waited patiently to be photographed with him. “They’re lovely people. I love them all.”
Carina Martin was among the Australian contingent to celebrate with Lawson. He is her great-uncle, said Martin, whose mother was his niece.
“He’s more like a grandfather really,” said Martin, noting when she and her brother were children their parents brought them to America and they spent a lot of time with the Lawsons.
“He’s just really disciplined and focused and he goes after stuff and he’s determined. All of those stick-to-itiveness type of things,” Martin replied when asked about the traits including his kindness that make Lawson so special.
Each day is a blessing, replied Lawson, when asked if he had any advice about longevity.
“When I was 92, they told me I had an aneurysm and there was a 50 percent chance I’d die on the table and 50 percent chance I wouldn’t. I said ‘I’m 92, I’m going to keep right on going.’ I could drop over any minute. But I’m not going to let it worry me,” he said.
Although conceding he has a touch of arthritis, Lawson doesn’t let it slow him down. Lawson bowls twice a week. Saturday morning, he played his regular game of pool with his buddies at Cypress Village. On Sunday, he serves as an usher at their church service, then heads home to read the newspaper and do the crosswords.
“He is pretty amazing. He says he’s starting to feel his age because he gets tired after he irons his shirts. What a hoot! I get tired doing that and I’m 30 years younger!” Clancy said.
Noting the family and friends had gathered from near and far to honor Lawson, the Rev. Dave Alexander described Lawson as “a blessing to so many.”
“For friends that have been made over the years. For his service to his country. For love that was shared with a loved one for 65 years, and for family. For being a blessing to so many in beautiful flowers. We pause to honor Larry Lawson and give thanks for every day of these 100 years,” Alexander said.