Nanette Levin, Special to The Catholic Virginian

John Ward isn’t your typical Sacred Heart parishioner. He attends daily Mass at the Danville parish. He’s served as a cook to raise money for Sacred Heart Catholic School tuition assistance. He hosts clergy at his home for meals he prepares. He’s usually at the Saturday Vigil Mass. 

What sets him apart most, though, is that he turned 100 on June 14 and continues to serve as a beacon in the Danville Catholic community. That’s what he’s done for much of his life.

“We had a great week-long (birthday) celebration for him,” said Father Jonathan Goertz, pastor of Sacred Heart. 

This included the mayor, who came to Mass to recognize Ward on behalf of the city on the Saturday prior to his birthday. The next day his family had a party for him, and the Knights of Columbus held a bash on his birthday. 

Roots span decades

Ward’s great-granddaughter is a student at Sacred Heart Catholic School. His oldest son, John, was in first grade and among 67 students who enrolled and attended opening day in 1953. At the time there were two grades to a classroom and four nuns in charge. 

“They had me over there helping to sand those desks so they could refinish them,” explained Ward, regarding the used desks secured from the city for the school’s opening. 

Born June 14, 1918 in New Orleans, Ward moved to Danville with his wife, Lena, and two children after serving in World War II. He opened Ward’s Upholstery on Jefferson Avenue, which he operated for seven years. He then worked as a salesman for Sears. In New Orleans, he had been a bank teller.

Lena has passed, as has his second wife, Marie, along with his two sons, John and Michael. His “baby” brother, Thomas, who’s 98, still comes to visit. 

“He gets around better than me,” Ward said. “He doesn’t use a walker and does steps.”

About 10 years ago, Ward downsized from the original two-story home he shared with his wife and children to a smaller, single-level house. He still drives, does his own shopping and cooking, and enjoys hosting company for special menus he prepares. 

Just before Ward’s birthday, Father Goertz and seminarian Marton Lonart were invited to his home for a meal of seafood gumbo, cheese garlic toast and apple cobbler. 

“And they ate every bit of it. The seminarian — he cleaned that dish right out of gumbo,” said. Ward. 

Remembering World War II

Ward’s most vivid memories are of World War II. 

“We had more time in combat than any other unit,” he said. “We were there a year before they invaded Normandy.” 

Ward began what was supposed to be a one-year term after being drafted into the army in 1941. He reported for duty on Dec. 3; the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. 

He remembered the dismay of his predecessors who had been promised a one-year draft commitment, and who thought they were going home. 

“We loaded in Newport News, Virginia, and it had the landing craft and everything, so we knew,” Ward said, noting they sailed to Africa for 10 days of practice and then on to Sicily. “We never did get our Jeeps in Sicily.”

He is blunt in expressing those memories.

“Our Army wasn’t worth a damn. Roosevelt was trying to keep us neutral. One year and then get out,” Ward said. “The Army didn’t have anything. We had a really good Navy.” 

He also was aware of the Germans’ firepower. 

“They had the best trained army and they had the equipment. Took over one country after another. The German tanks wouldn’t even move out of the way when we fired,” Ward said, illustrating how outmatched U.S. troops were in artillery power and equipment.

“I got to see (Gen. George C.) Patton, too. Patton was up there; you see, Patton believed an officer should be up there with his men. Our battalion commander wasn’t up there. He was in the back. ‘Tell him to get his a– up here right away,’” Ward recalled Patton hollering. 

Still busy, active and engaged

Everyone appreciates Ward’s vigor. 

“He had abdominal surgery a couple of years ago,” Father Goertz said. “I went to the hospital to anoint him. The hospital surgeon said, ‘I’m not doing surgery on a 98-year-old man,’ and then he met John and said, ‘You look like you’re a good candidate for this. Let’s go ahead and do it.’ He came through well.” 

Ward continues to share his memories and knowledge, including regular visits to the sixth-grade class at Sacred Heart Catholic School as guest speaker when they study World War II.  

“He is popular and well-loved, appreciated and we have a lot of great memories over the past decades,” his pastor said. “He was very generous in planning monthly meals that the proceeds of which went to Catholic student tuition assistance at Sacred Heart. His generosity and being a part of that went on for many years and it’s something we appreciated and are still indebted to him in many ways.” 

The priest continued, “He continues to pass along his wisdom and we’re better off for it. He continues to be involved and doesn’t let his age be an excuse for anything.”