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Vern Larson of Wellsville celebrates 105th birthday

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“Boy that went quick” said Vernon Larson last week thinking back over his one-hundred five years of life

By Andrew Harris and John Larson

Being born in 1917, Vern Larson has lived through a unique window of American history. Two pandemics, two world wars, the Great Depression, the roaring 20’s, and the rapid growth of the United States. While he celebrated his 105th last week with his family, the artist looked back on his interesting and successful life from his village home. A beloved figure to many in Wellsville, from his birth story to his thoughts on dying, enjoy this birthday celebration.

Born February 9th, 1917 in Jamestown NY

“Boy that went quick” said Vernon Larson last week thinking back over his one-hundred five years of life.  “I was born on a cold day in Jamestown NY.  In those days there were no snowplows and if you know Jamestown those hills are quite steep.  When it was time for me to enter the world my folks, who didn’t own a car, called the doctor who had a 2-door coup to take my mother to the hospital.  That night as the doctor drove, my father standing outside on the running boards, clung to the passenger side door in the freezing cold.  When they had to climb a hill, dad had to jump off the running boards and push the little coup uphill. I was born about 8 am on the 9th of February 1917. I grew up in Jamestown with my younger brother Cliff. We had aunts and uncles and cousins there as well. I graduated from high school in 1935.”
 

If Vern could travel back to any point in his life and relive a few moments

College days

  “I’d like to revisit my time back in art school.  After a couple of years working in Jamestown during the Depression, I set out for the Kansas City Art Institute where I studied for four years.  We used to have activities all the time after school.  We used to have dances and roller skating and picnics.  It was unbelievable.  Everyone who lived in Higby House was just like family.  We were all poor kids but if anybody was without money, or food, or stuff, the rest of us would take care of them.  I remember when big-name bands came to Kansas they used to go to the Pla-Mor.  It was a big recreation facility.  They had bowling alleys, roller skating, and they had a dance floor that was on springs.  The school was able to get free tickets to the Pla-Mor.  So, when big-name bands came to town we could go see ’em.  And we’d go right up and talk to the musicians.  And the picnics…I remember one night somebody said, ‘let’s go to Swope Park and have a picnic.’  Oh, and that caught on real fast.  We invited teachers and everybody and built a fire and were sitting around.  All we had was marshmallows I think it was.  Well, the cops came around and wanted to know what we were doin’ having a fire in Swope Park at night.  We said, ‘we’re having a picnic, would you like to join us?’  And sure enough, the cops joined us.  

In Kansas City I worked nights in a three-story parking garage.  One rainy night this big black limousine pulls up and a young attractive woman gets out and asks if I would drive her down to the hotel.  And I said I’m not supposed to leave. ‘It’s only down the block, she said. It’s raining and I don’t want to walk down there in the rain and get all wet.’ It was late at night so I said OK. Well, when I got back these two FBI agents showed up and asked, “You know who that was?’ I said no and they started questioning me. Unbeknownst to me they had staked out the top floor of the garage and were looking for someone. Turns out that woman was the daughter of a big crime boss in Leavenworth prison, and she had just visited him. Those agents wanted to know every little detail of what I talked about with her. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone that they were tearing her car apart looking for something or other.  

Vern in WWII

World War II

After art school, I enlisted and served as a Captain, Civil Engineer, Audio Visual Squadron in what was then called the Army Air Force from 1942 – 1946 during the Second World War. I was stationed in India within the China-Burma-India Theater as a Base Intelligence Officer.

After the War I earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Syracuse University and then came to Wellsville.

Vern’s favorite thing about Wellsville

“The Genesee River. While attending photo-intelligence school, I was granted a three-day pass and took a train to Jamestown to visit my folks.  At one point during the ride the conductor said, ‘At the next stop you can get sandwiches, coffee, donuts, hot chocolate, magazines, newspapers; and it’s all free to servicemen courtesy of’ [some organization I can’t remember].  Just help yourself.  So, I did.  That made quite an impression on me.  What a nice thing to do.  Before that I had never heard of Wellsville.”

Moving to Wellsville and falling for Joyce

Larson teaching in 1958

After the War I came to Wellsville High School teaching art in 1949 I think it was. That’s where I met Joyce Forsythe. She loved directing plays and musicals. In those days the students in shop and art classes constructed the sets. One night with opening curtain fast approaching and the set still needing a lot of work, I decided to come in and hammer away backstage to get things caught-up. Well Miss Forsythe was having none of my hammering racket during her rehearsal – and let me know it. The following morning, I told Jim Gambell the Principal, “I can’t work with that woman.” He just chuckled saying, ‘Now Vern…now Vern.’ On Nov. 23, 1957, in Jamestown, we married. I remember going into the office the Monday after and saying, “Mr. Gambell, Miss Forsythe won’t be in today.” He looked surprised and before he could say anything, I added “but Mrs. Larson will.” He teared up and gave me a hug.

Vern and Joyce

  The key to a long life

(Laughing) – That I don’t know.  You know as a kid I once got sick and my mother gave me a little bit of turpentine and sugar I think it was.”

Vern sledding with his granddaughter Anna

The 1918 pandemic 

 “I don’t remember anything about that.  I do remember food not being available and I was fed rice – a lot.  So, rice was my favorite food.  And it always has been since.  Especially rice pudding.”

Vern’s love of plants and trees

“I got into that from my parents and grandparents.  My grandparents had every kind of plant you could think of.  Their porch was just loaded with plants and in the house the living room and the kitchen plants, plants, plants.  My favorite flower is the rose.  I used to plant many varieties of rose bush. My favorite trees are the Maple, Pine, Hemlock and the Beech tree.

Favorite artist and musician:

Thomas Hart Benton, my instructor at the Kansas City Art Institute and musician: Woody Herman

Thoughts on dying

“I’m not afraid of dying. Everyone does. I learned a lot through the War. I have two great sons. I’d like to stick around as long as I can. I have real good neighbors. The longer I’m in Wellsville, the longer I want to stay here.”


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