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WWII vet marks landmark birthday with friends and dignitaries

State senators Jim Forsythe and Jeanie Forrester made a trip to the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton last Thursday to help WWII Navy veteran Jack Hillier celebrate his 100th birthday. (Donna Rhodes) (click for larger version)
August 31, 2011
TILTON — His eyes were sparkling and his toes were tapping as Jack Hillier took in the festivities when friends, fellow veterans, dignitaries and caregivers of New Hampshire Veterans Home gathered to salute the Naval veteran on his 100th birthday last Thursday.

Hillier was born on Aug. 25, 1911 in Boston. He spent much of his younger years in the Boston area until he went off to study at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., where he majored in history and economics. He joked last week that he also "minored in women," but in the end, it was only one pretty girl who caught his eye and captured his heart.

"I was dancing to 'Star Dust' on the dance floor at college one night when I proposed to June," he recalled as the lilting music of that song filled the dining hall of NHVH last week.

The two were married in 1937. After college, Hillier recalled that he and his new bride stayed in the area, where he was hired to work on the rehabilitation of Colonial Williamsburg. With two children already making up his family, he was soon called to duty, and set sail for the high seas as a member of the Navy Armed Guard, created during World War I to protect merchant ships. Hillier said that during his service in WWII, the ships were used to transport ammunitions and gasoline to England.

"Most people never even heard of us. The Merchant Marines were in charge of the ship, but the Armed Guard were onboard in case something happened. That's when me and my men took control," he said.

Normally, a naval patrol ship would accompany the Merchant Marine vessels along with the Navy Armed Guard, but Hillier said his favorite times at sea were when he and his crew were aboard a gasoline-toting ship without a Naval escort.

"That was the best ship I ever manned a crew for," he recalled.

After leaving the service, the Hillier family moved to Westmoreland, where he worked in the furniture business and was general manager of Sprague Carlton Furniture Manufacturing Company in Keene. The family still owns a summer home in Hebron where Hillier enjoyed painting. A beautiful large painting of his view of Newfound Lake from 1972 now proudly hangs in the dining hall at NHVH.

Helping mark the momentous occasion, NHVH Commandant Barry Conway gave his own personal congratulations and read a letter from Gov. John Lynch. Also on hand were Senators Jim Forsythe and Jeanie Forrester, who brought greetings and best wishes of their own from the State Senate.

Most notably, however, were the letters and well-wishes from former presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush, as well as current Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.

The card, accompanied by a signed photo of Obama, read in part, "You have witnessed great milestones in our Nation's history, and your life represents an important part of the American story. As you reflect upon a century of memories, we hope that your are filled with tremendous pride and joy."

When it came his turn to speak, Hillier had nothing but gratitude to express for those who filled the room.

"It's hard to believe. One-quarter of my life has been spent here (at NHVH), and it's been a wonderful experience. I want to thank each and every one of you for what you've contributed to my life," Hillier said.

His party was further highlighted by a celebration for fellow veteran Bernie, who turned 85 that same day, and 101-year-old Deke Abbott, who joined Hillier at the front of the dining hall, where Abbott was congratulated for his longevity, too.

"You and Mr. Abbott are both a part of the Centurions Club here now," Greg Lynch, Senior Vice Commander of the New Hampshire Veterans of Foreign Wars, told Hillier as the men shook hands and exchanged greetings.

Frequent NHVH entertainer Bernie Dougherty took everyone on a musical journey through the years, playing tunes full of memories for the guest of honor.

Hillier even sang along to "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "You Are My Sunshine" and "Anchors Aweigh," played as tribute to his honorable service in the U.S. Navy.

Dougherty also reviewed costs of grocery items, stamps and housing in 1911, along with other notable births, such as Ronald Reagan, Lucille Ball, Tennessee Williams and Ginger Rogers. 1911 was also the year of the first Indianapolis 500 and when the City of Las Vegas was incorporated.

"But, let's have a hand for Jack- the most important thing that happened in 1911," Dougherty told the crowd.

Hillier's children, now all in their 60's and 70's, were expected to arrive from out of state on Saturday to whisk their dad off for a weekend stay at an Ellsworth inn, where they would enjoy a private celebration and family reunion.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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