Veteran Celebrates 100th Birthday With Help from Sharing Wishes

At the height of World War II, young naval lieutenant John Schaeffer helped construct supply bases in the South Pacific—building airstrips, mobile hospitals and roads on islands dotted across the embattled ocean.

At the age of 99, more than 70 years later, his memory of those days was undimmed. He could still recite the dimensions of the Quonset huts they built on those bases and name every island he visited on his three tours of duty with the Seabees.

John, who passed away on June 5, just a few weeks shy of his 100th birthday, was a former resident of Beardstown and Virginia, Illinois. A proud veteran, he counted his military service as a defining experience.

“There have been three segments to my life,” he said in late May, as he reflected on the past century. “Growing up in Beardstown, the war and living in Virginia with my family.”

After some thought, he added a fourth segment: the 14 years he spent as a resident in a Springfield senior living complex and the setting for his 100th birthday party.

John celebrated his birthday on May 30, thanks to the Sharing Wishes Fund. That fund was established in 2012 by the Memorial Medical Center Foundation to grant the wishes of Hospice patients and their families.

“He wanted to do this when he was still able to enjoy it,” said Memorial Home Hospice social worker Jessica Roth, LSW, noting that John’s official birthday wasn’t until June 21. But concerns about his health led organizers to set the date of the party a little earlier.

“He told me on one visit that he really wanted to see a cake with ‘Happy 100th Birthday’ on it,” she added.

About three dozen of his friends and neighbors helped him share that cake, which was decorated in red, white and blue icing. During the party, John was also honored for his military service with a We Honor Veterans ceremony. These events are part of a nationwide program presented by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and are held by Memorial Home Hospice to recognize veterans in hospice care.

John served three years, five months and one day in the United States Navy, attaining the rank of lieutenant before his discharge in 1945. He enlisted in the Seabees, officially known as the United States Naval Construction Battalions, in 1942. After the war, he turned that construction experience into a career in engineering services.

One of his prized possessions was a globe painted with three lines to trace his journeys in the Pacific during his tours of duty.

The first line followed his travels during the Guadalcanal Campaign, the first major Allied offensive against Japan. The second line traced the Mariana Campaign, in which US forces constructed bases across the Pacific. The third line hugged the coast of Alaska and the west coast of the US.

At the time of his death, John was writing a book about his life, including his experiences in World War II.

“We’re so grateful that he’s taken the time to write his memories down so he can pass it along to others—so we will never forget,” Hospice chaplain Victor Angulo said during the We Honor Veterans ceremony, which included presentation of a plaque and an American flag.

John asked that the other veterans at the party be recognized as well. While Angulo read a poem recognizing their service, about ten other men and women rose to their feet to join in the honor.

Afterward, the group sang “Happy Birthday” to John—who waited for the applause to die down before wryly singing an additional phrase: “And many more.”

Singing was one of his lifelong passions. He spent 25 years performing with a quartet called The Virginians, named after the town where he made a home with his late wife Judy and their two daughters. “We sang what people liked,” he recalled, and sang a few bars of some of their old standards. “Nothing fancy, just good harmony.”

Roth said she enjoyed getting to know John during the past few months and hearing about his century of experiences.

“It’s always fun being with him,” she said. “He has so many stories to tell, and he loves to tell them.”

Throughout his party, friends stopped at the table where John sat to wish him a happy birthday. Sometimes, he responded with one of his famous stories or a memory they had shared together.

But when asked if he was enjoying his party, he didn’t need any words—just a smile and two thumbs up.