'Hallelujah, and thanks for everything'
William Waddell has lived through every war his country has fought between World War I and the current War on Terror. He's a walking history lesson and, having just turned 100, he's even a bit older than the average history textbook.
But the Sanford native, who was born July 3, 1914, didn't just live through the wars. He fought through one of them as a quartermaster in the still-segregated U.S. Army during World War II, serving stateside as well as in tours of duty in North Africa and France.
On Wednesday, Waddell turned 100. The most senior known veteran living in Lee County, he spent about five years of the last century in the Army and another 63 years working at the hospital. And in recognition of his service — and the good example he gave while raising a family — he received one of the highest awards the state can give.
The Lee County Enrichment Center threw him a birthday party Wednesday, where his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren celebrated his life along with 100 or more other well-wishers from the local senior community, various veterans groups and his church, Blandonia Presbyterian Church. Two local elected officials and veterans themselves, Charlie Parks and Kirk Smith — the chairman and vice chairman of the county commissioners — also came to wish Waddell a happy birthday.
The county gave him a gift, framing all his medals and ribbons on a luxurious background. But the state's present was the most prestigious — The Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
The order, signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, makes Waddell an ambassador of the state and puts him in company with such luminaries as Billy Graham, Maya Angelou and Michael Jordan.
"I just want to say, 'Hallelujah and thanks for everything,'" Waddell said.
He grew up quick, graduating from Sanford's W.B. Wicker School in 1937 and then going to the Lee County Training School to study to be a brick mason. In 1941, he married Hattie Thomas, and the next year, he was drafted and sent off to Fort Bragg before eventually traveling overseas for the war.
"It gives me great honor today to be in the presence of what I consider the Greatest Generation," said Wayne Peedin, assistant director of the N.C. Division of Veterans Services, who presented the Long Leaf Pine award. "Mr. Waddell is a member of that Greatest Generation."
At 100, Waddell is still energetic. John Sandrock, local veterans services officer, jokingly called him a bouncing baby boy on Wednesday. And Waddell backed up that image, grinning and clapping all morning long, and banging his cane on the ground to the tune when the crowd sang "Happy Birthday." He then got a birthday cake and swiped some of the icing before anyone could cut it, licking his fingers clean.
He also has a quick mind. After being surprised with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, and as people crowded in to take pictures, he joked about how his face would break the cameras. But he also had more serious sentiments, telling everyone that he's grateful to have made it this long in good health and with his family still around him.
"I have to pinch myself to make sure it's me," Waddell said.