There were many milestones in the year 1916. It was the year U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation creating the National Park Service, paving the way for the country’s first national parks. It was the first year the Chicago Cubs played at Weeghman Park, or Wrigley Field as it’s known today.
It’s also the birth year of Winter Park resident Elmer Brown, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday, reflecting on a century’s worth of memories.
Brown was born on June, 17, 1916 in Atwood, Kan. – a small town tucked away in the northwest corner of the state, not far from the borders of Colorado and Nebraska.
His family moved to Englewood, Colo. when he was only 2 years old after his father passed away in the 1918 flu pandemic. He grew up and went to school just outside the mile-high city of Denver, where he eventually learned how to box and fought in several prizefights in the 118-pound featherweight class. In an era when winnings often included a brand new suit, he once beat a fighter who went to the Olympic trials in Boston. Brown said he never lost a match.
A 1937 Denver newspaper photo of a 21-year-old Brown sporting boxing gloves still hangs from a living room wall.
“I was never hurt, never knocked down or knocked out,” Brown said. “I won every match I ever had.”
Brown loved to box, but he also wanted to see the world. With that in mind he joined the Navy in 1941 at the age of 25. He worked as an engineer on the USS Melville, a repair ship that traveled alongside other vessels.
“I wanted to go, and I did,” Brown said. “I saw the world.”
He traveled across the globe in his 30 years in the Navy, visiting Brazil, the Caribbean Islands, and much of Europe – even Pearl Harbor just a week before it was attacked by the Japanese. Brown remembers one trip to Rome, going to the Vatican and shaking hands with Pope Pius XII, who thanked him for his service.
“I really enjoyed my life in the Navy,” he said.
Brown’s tenure with the Navy had no shortage of thrills and close calls. He remembers drinking with his war buddies in a bar in England one night when suddenly the air raid sirens went off. The group ran back to the docks to board their ship but had to hop a fence and dash across a wide-open field. Brown remembers hopping a second fence, turning around and reading a sign that said “Warning: Mine Field,” which they had just crossed.
It was during his years in the Navy that he also met his wife, Christine – a seamstress who sewed patches onto his uniform
“We went on a few dates and one thing led to another,” Brown said with a smile.
After the war and several more years in the armed forces, Brown spent the rest of his working career in the refrigeration business – a new technology at the time.
Today Brown lives in a Winter Park home with his son Donn. He’ll often sit on the screened-in back porch and look out over a serene lake, but Donn recalls finding his father trying to fire up a lawnmower in the back yard one hot afternoon, despite his ripe age and his dependence on a cane.
How do you reach the age of 100? Brown’s answer: Keep busy.