Even though it was his birthday, Jack Babcock had his standard lunch Thursday at the Rosauers Family Restaurant on North Division: A plate of long-cut french fries with two tubs of tartar sauce and coffee with cream.
What was different about Thursday, however, was the people he and his wife, Dorothy, shared that lunch with: about 45 family and friends; the minister of Veterans Affairs from Canada, who brought greetings from Queen Elizabeth II, the Canadian prime minister and governor general; a barbershop quartet; four news photographers, three television cameras and three reporters.
All the attention wasn’t just because the north Spokane resident turned 109 on Thursday. He’s also the last living person who served in the Canadian military in World War I, and one of only a handful of living veterans left of some 65 million soldiers and sailors from both sides of the war that began 95 years ago this summer. Here’s how rare that is: The United States knows of one other than Babcock; Great Britain knows of two.
That surprises him a bit, as does the attention he gets for it. He’s quick to tell people he’s not a combat veteran from the Western Front.
“It isn’t that I’m so damned important,” Babcock said. “I didn’t serve in the battlefields.”
When Babcock was 15, he lied about his age and enlisted to go “over there” from his home in Ontario. By the time he got to England, the army had figured out that Babcock and hundreds of other teens it had shipped over were too young. They were kept in Great Britain in the “Boys Battalion,” training until they would be old enough to fight. They drilled daily under the watchful eyes of combat veterans; on a good weekend, they got a long hike in the countryside.
The war ended before he could be shipped to France. In one sense he was disappointed; in another, he was relieved: “If I’d’ve gone to France, I’d’ve got shot at.”
Still, Babcock, who lives quietly near the North Division Y most of the year, is something of a celebrity in Canada. The country’s sole surviving link to the hundreds of thousands it sent to Europe hasn’t gone unnoticed on his birthday in recent years.
“Everybody loves Mr. Babcock. He’s very well known,” said Wendy Baldwin, manager of political and economic affairs at the Canadian consulate in Seattle.
After his service in the Canadian army, Babcock returned home and later immigrated to the United States, where he served in the U.S. Army from 1921-1924. He moved to Spokane in 1931 with his first wife, Elsie, and eventually opened a mechanical contracting business. Elsie died of lymphoma in 1976, and Jack later married Dorothy, a nurse who took care of Elsie in the hospital. They’ve been together 32 years.
“We always loved grandpa because of his stories,” said Amy Chamberlin, Jack’s granddaughter who came to his celebration with her two sons. They’re separated by nearly a century and have always known of their great-grandfather as a bit of a celebrity. For Amy, that seemed to happen when Jack hit 95 or so and became part of the dwindling pool of World War I vets.
Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson made the trip from Ottawa to present birthday greetings from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Governor General Michaelle Jean and himself. Last year, the Canadian government granted Babcock’s request to restore his Canadian citizenship, which he had to renounce when he immigrated to the States under the laws of that time. It was an easy request to grant, Thompson said
As she has for the last several years, Queen Elizabeth II sent her “warmest congratulations.” A birthday note from the queen never gets old, Babcock said. “She’s quite an important lady.”
He’s emphatic, however, that he is not. If someone insists that he is, he’ll quickly add: “I didn’t do a damn bit of fighting.”
Maybe not being shot at or ducking shells or living in the trenches contributed to his longevity, he said. He’s pretty sure that the daily meal of extra-long fries and tartar sauce – the Rosauers cook calls them “Jack’s special” – doesn’t help, but eating good, healthy meals does.
The key to long life, he said: “Don’t worry.”