Gillett's youth at 100 gives hope



It’s hard enough to live in this world for even a couple decades, and right now, it’s probably as hard as it's ever been.

Saturday I was doing laundry and packing a bag because I fear at any moment my life will be flipped upside down and I’ll have to rush to the hospital to be with my ailing mother. She’s a hell of a fighter and I wouldn’t be surprised if in another couple of decades I’m writing about this tough time in her life.

Her liver is failing and other conditions prevent doctors from doing the really good stuff to turn that around. She also has a tumor on her liver that’s knocking on the portal vein that supplies blood to the liver.

But as much as I want to write in therapy for having to deal with this six months after my wife left and three years after losing my daughter, today we’re going to talk about courage and a man named Conrad Gillett.

Connie, as he’s known to friends, celebrated his 100th birthday Saturday at the Kensington.

My mission on this was to take a photo, and chat with this man, whose the father of a very good photographer.

Conrad has one of the sharpest minds of anyone I’ve ever met. And a deduction on my part says that Connie was a member of special forces division of the U.S. Marines called the Raiders.

Conrad simply calls them an “elite” force.

Elite indeed.

The Raiders were formed in 1942 and disbanded two years later in 1944 and were lightly armed and specially trained forces in the South Pacific.

Gillett is an extremely quick reference for a 100-year-old man and veteran of World War II. I would have to imagine that he is one of the oldest WWII veterans in Lee County, if not the oldest. He’s certainly one of the oldest in the state.

But this man dressed in spiffy birthday attire, walked briskly into the dining hall at The Kensington in Fort Madison Saturday and took a quick seat at a table adorned with cards, a special lit Boat in a Bottle and a piece of carrot cake.

This gentle man with a vicious past would be a page turning reference on WWII specific to U.S. operations on islands in the south pacific including Guadalcanal, New Georgia, and Guam.

I gave myself 15 minutes to honor this man and his son Keith. Thirty minutes after my self-imposed deadline, I’m still leaning my head in my hand riveted to this man’s power of recollection.

He talked in great detail and with candor about his role with the Raiders. He also asked me several times to leave details out of my publication. Glad to oblige that request. This story was too good.

While he revealed the Raiders' job description in great detail he reached the point where the war was coming to an end and B29 bombers were seen flying in to the forward operation on a clear night with a big moon.

“It was one of the most beautiful things I saw in my four years of service,” he told me.

Tears filled his eyes and he stopped to wipe his face.

“Excuse me”.

He talked about Fort Madison and how it’s changed and one of the great things he’s seen in this town is the “rehabilitation” of the harbor – or marina.

“That’s a very good thing for this town,” he said.

The marina holds a special place for this avid fisherman, whose health issues have blocked him from going further down the Mississippi in a flat bottom john boat. He stopped just two years earlier.

“One of the first things to go is the legs”, he said. “And I have a kidney problem so I can’t get too far away before I have to pee.”

100 years old and he thinks he needs to explain why he can’t get in a boat.

Charming beyond any expectation.

This man deserves a sit down with anyone who’d like to do it. He’d welcome it.

His four decades as a man who worked his way from the bottom to a high level at Sheaffer Pen, said work ethics are failing this area, and this country.

He said people need to have pride in their work and they need to get back to work. Conrad said people who work need to have a desire, once again, to be the best at what they do.

“That’s what my father taught me.”

Conrad, I think your father taught you more than that. He taught you courage and bravery, and kindness and passion. He taught you that giving a complete stranger 45 minutes to talk about your service to this country and how Fort Madison is changing, is strong character and a love of people.

I don’t wanna diminish the service of others that live here and have stories to tell, but I do wanna try to convey clearly, how well this man recalls his days in the Raiders and fishing off the Mississippi shore.

It would not surprise me to be chatting with Mr. Gillett as well in the next decade. It helps to restore my faith in humanity, which has been challenged over and over the past two decades. But he’s still a rock and an encyclopedia of knowledge that he can tap almost at the mere request.

Connie Gillett, you’re a real American hero and someone I will brag on sitting down with close to an hour. I hope you enjoyed the carrot cake and company  - But that’s Beside the Point.

Chuck Vandenberg is editor and co-owner of Pen City Current and can be reached at

Fort Madison, Beside the Point, centariran, 100 years old, birthday, Conrad Gillett, Chuck Vandenberg, opinion, editorial, Pen City Current,


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