From D-Day to COVID, Exeter vet Murray Greene marks 100 years of milestones

·3 min read

Chalk up another big one.

In his 100 years, Murray Greene has endured everything from the Great Depression to the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day invasion of Europe.

Add a historic plague to milestones the Exeter resident has experienced as he celebrated his centennial Tuesday.

“I don’t see any difference,” Greene said on turning 100 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m not a spry as I used to be . . . outside of that, I seem all right.”

Greene was born in Zone Township near Thamesville in northeast Chatham-Kent, in 1921.

Before the war, he worked at Ford Motor Co. in Windsor.

In 1942, Greene enlisted in the Canadian Army and completed basic training in Chatham and advanced training at Ipperwash. He arrived in England not long after, joining the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and serving in France, Germany, Belgium and Holland.

“He landed at Juno Beach, he was there for that big battle,” said Greene’s daughter and caregiver, Bonnie LaFond, who recalled more of her father's harrowing front-line experiences.

“A couple of nights when he was in France, the Germans were there. He and a couple of his buddies had to slide open a crypt and sleep in there so they wouldn’t get caught,” LaFond said.

Later in life, Greene was named to France’s National Order of the Legion of Honour in recognition of his heroism in liberating the country during the Second World War.

At war's end in 1945, he returned to Southwestern Ontario, where he reconnected with and married his pre-war sweetheart, Rhea.

The couple settled in Exeter in 1955 and opened Greene’s Variety, a staple shop for years in the small South Huron community.

After retiring from the convenience store in 1975, Greene chaired the public utility commission for 30 years and served as local Legion president and as an Exeter councillor.

Greene was married to Rhea for more than 70 years, until her death in 2019.

He’s a father of two, and the family line now extends to great-great-grandchildren.

“(His family) respects him, and they love him so much, and it’s awesome to see,” LaFond said.

The local Exeter Legion planned a drive-by parade Tuesday night to mark Greene’s 100th, a safe, socially distanced option amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Greene has been staying home since the pandemic began last year.

“It’s not a birthday party celebration like they would’ve had, but this is the best they can do,” said Bart DeVries, the legion’s veterans services officer.

Greene is one of only four surviving Second World War veterans in Exeter, DeVries said, adding it’s essential to honour the dwindling corps of Canadians who served in 1939-45.

“For me, it’s important,” he said. “I’m a first-generation Canadian of Dutch heritage. When Murray was overseas, he was liberating my parents from the Nazis.”

Calling Greene a “true gentleman,” DeVries fondly recalled visiting Greene’s Variety as a kid and eyeing the massive jars of jellybeans and jujubes.

“He always has a smile, he looks out for others, he’s always been community-minded,” DeVries said, adding those in Exeter often recognize Greene’s signature green hats.

Instead of traditional birthday cake, Greene's favourite pecan pie was to be dropped off during the drive-by, DeVries said.

The centenarian said he’s “very pleased” with the community’s efforts to safely fete his birthday.

And he’s counting his blessings on his birthday: Not only did he survive a world war, but he also recently fought off a bout of pneumonia to make it to 100.

“They said I died three times,” he said. “So, I still think that God has something planned for me, but I’m not sure what it would be. I got through 100 years anyway.”

So, what's next for someone with a century of memories?

“I’m just going to carry on as long as I can,” Greene said.

maxmartin@postmedia.com

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Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press