Today, I had the privilege of meeting 107 year old World War I veteran Robley Rex in Louisville, Kentucky. It's difficult to adequately convey in words what it's like to meet someone like Robley because, quite simply, there are no others even remotely like him. Now on the verge of his 108th birthday, Robley Rex is a Kentucky native who still retains his distinct Kentucky accent and southern gentleman charm. At the moment I met him, I was struck by how remarkably vivacious Robley is today. We came in our Army Combat Uniform (ACUs), and I could immediately see Robley sit up straight in his chair with his white dress shirt and bow tie. His eyes brightened, and a broad smile covered his face. He extended his hand to us, and I immediately felt a large strong hand firmly grip my own--at that moment, I immediately knew Robley Rex was in very good health for his age. What I was not fully prepared for was the total recall this exceptional man had--of his experiences, acquaintances, and historic details from his life--as far back as 95 years ago!
"What is your last name, again?" he asked. "Fenzel," I answered.
"F-E-N-Z-E-L," Robley spelled, and then pointed at his forehead. "That name rings a bell with me," he said. "I knew a Fenzel."
I explained to him that my grandfather had fought during World War I, along with his brothers. Robley Rex deployed to Brest, France in the waning years of World War I as an 18 year old military intelligence Soldier who translated German documents and radio intercepts into English. I explained to him that my grandfather and his brothers were from Indiana, lived in Chicago before they deployed to France to fight in the war as well.
"I think I may have known one of them!"
"Did you ever meet General John J. Pershing," I asked?
To my surprise, Robley nodded enthusiastically. "Yes!" he said. "And not just to shake his hand in passing, but to stand beside him on a few occasions and talk to him! And Oh, what a spit-and-polish general he was!"
Rex paused for a moment, seemingly caught by a fleeting memory. "And you know one of our most decorated Soldiers of the time? It was MacArthur!" He said right away, answering his own question. "Pershing told young Captain Macarthur he was a hero, but he was putting too much at risk because, as The Blackjack [Pershing] told MacArthur, 'you have a bad habit of charging the front line beside your troops--and that cannot work well for long,'" Rex said with a scolding index finger, reenacting Pershing's faux reprimand.
Rex then turned to us, "Do you know MacArthur refused to carry a rifle on the front lines? He only carried his swagger stick!" Robley Rex shook his head, "And do you know what MacArthur told Pershing?" he asked, eyebrows raised. "He said, 'Sir, no bullet made has had my name on it yet!'"
I asked Robley what his best memory was from World War I? Again, Rex became lost in his thoughts for just a moment. Watching him closely, I realized I was witnessing a phenomenon I might never again see: someone retreating 90 years in the recesses of one's mind to pick a dominant positive memory from a traumatic time in our history.
Suddenly, Rex was looking me level in the eyes, but smiling brightly. "It would have to be the absolute discipline we all had as Soldiers," Rex answered. "You see, if a corporal told you to do something...to pick something up...to deliver something, you didn't delay! You did it right away! That was our culture. It was expected!"
Robley Rex remembered his company commander, Captain Lawrence, by name. "Captain Lawrence went to West Point and was classmates with Eisenhower and MacArthur," he explained. "And if Captain Lawrence called for you, you better be there quick!" Rex said, smiling.
I asked Robley how he was feeling at 107? Without hesitation, Robley answered, "I feel really good!"
At that moment, I was struck by something approaching a revelation. "Sir, you always smile, don't you?"
Rex nodded. "I have nothing to complain about." If there were any secrets to Robley's longevity, I was sure of at least one: Robley Rex is an eternal optimist who loves people and has a perpetual zest for life. Politeness and a welcoming smile are his trademarks. He's also an exceptional listener--even with a hearing aid in each ear. When he misses a piece of the conversation, he habitually nods, and smiles, and says, "Thank-You!"
We did not stay long, but I asked Robley if we could join him for his 108th birthday in May. His eyes lit up--"I'd be honored!"
We collectively shook our heads. "No, Mr. Rex, the honor would be ours." I looked back at Robley Rex as we left him.
He was saluting us.