Largo woman, a WWII veteran, reflects on life as she approaches 100

The fact that Avera Connell is turning 100 next month is not the most amazing thing about her. It's what she went through to get there.

These days, Connell lives at Pinecrest Place in Largo and spends her days gazing over the golf course outside her seventh-floor window, following Rays baseball on TV and helping out with the retirement community's newsletter and birthday parties.

But this quick-witted, soon-to-be centenarian's life has included some serious and challenging times that she shares with a crystal clear memory and good humor.

• • •

Avera Connell was born Avera Hudson on Aug. 16, 1910, in Moores Bridge, Ala.

She grew up on a farm that was so self-sufficient that her family was hardly affected by the Great Depression. They only needed rations for flour and coffee. They ate what they raised on their 127 acres, including meat and sugar cane.

After high school and a few years at home, Connell went to business college in New Orleans in the early 1940s. After a bout with appendicitis, she was sent to recover at her brother's home in Oregon.

She decided she didn't want to go back to farm work. She wanted another challenge. She found one with the Army.

"One day I went to town I saw this big statue of Uncle Sam," she recalled. "He was sittin' up on that post office steps. He had his finger stuck out, (saying) 'I need you.' I walked in that place, never told nobody I signed up and in a couple of weeks, I was on my way to the Army."

At age 32, joining the Army was a move toward real independence.

"That's the first time I was able to tell myself what I wanted to do," she said.

Connell reported to Fort Des Moines, Iowa, for basic training. The first day brought with it her first real lesson about the world outside the South.

"First thing that got me was when we went to breakfast the first morning," she said. "It was eight at the table, four on each side. They brought the food out on a big platter, bacon and eggs.

"Well, them old girls, some of 'em was big eaters."

So with her southern manners, she politely passed the food to the next person without taking any.

"When it got back to me, there was nothing on the plate," she said. "I had never been in a crowd like that before."

At Fort Des Moines, she signed up for cooks and bakers school.

"I loved it. First thing I done was make 35 blueberry pies," she said. "That was my first assignment. I never seen such a pile of berries in my life."

After basic training, Connell took classes at Fort Des Moines to become a mess hall sergeant. Although she was comfortable leading other women, she still had fun with them as well. As male recruits arrived, the women were told to prepare their rooms.

"They told us, don't get in there and short sheet the beds — if they hadn't told us, we probably wouldn't have done it," she said. "That night, as they came in, hungry and irritated, they'd try to get in bed and couldn't get in. We were about dying a laughin'."

In 1942, she received orders to go overseas.

"We was on the boat 26 days after we left San Francisco," she said. "The captain told us 'you could be killed at any minute (from this point) until we land in Australia.' We cooked, slept and ate in shifts."

Of the 11,000 on board, only 126 were women, who, of course, had separate quarters.

Upon arriving in Australia, Connell's unit went to Brisbane, where they learned how to fight. From there, she went to New Guinea, then Leyte and Manila, both in the Philippines.

"Leyte was headquarters for the troops," she said. "That was the worst battle there. We won there and went to Manila."

In Manila, Avera's unit was housed in De La Salle College. When they arrived, they had to get food ready for the troops.

"Everything in there (the kitchen) was a mess," she said. "We had to clean all that up. Not a window was left in the building from the fighting."

She served in the Philippines until the end of the war, and received an honorable discharge in 1945.

• • •

After returning to the states, she married a man she had known her whole life, Vester Connell.

They lived in Michigan briefly and then Mississippi, where she got back into farm life. On the farm, they raised cattle and hogs and grew cotton for 20 years, she said. She also worked for 18 years in a garment plant, where she made pants.

They never had any children, but Vester had a son from a previous marriage. Her stepson, Bruce, is now in his 80s and lives in California.

The Connells retired to Belleair in 1966. On her block in Biltmore Estates, Connell was known for many years as the "Queen of Kay Drive" because she watched over the street from her lawn chair in front of her house.

Rosalie George, 67, said her children grew up across the street from the Connells on Kay Drive. Her children affectionately called Avera and Vester "Buddy and More Buddy."

George, who now lives in Seminole, said Avera Connell "was always such a busy person and a caring person ... always upbeat. She told (my children) about her life on the farm, picking cotton. I'm just amazed at the many things that she did."

Vester died in 1993 and Avera moved into Pinecrest in 2004.

• • •

Katie Irwin of Largo has known Avera Connell for about 20 years.

Irwin's mother and the Connells were friends when they all lived in Mississippi. Now Katie stops by a few times a week to see if there's anything Connell needs.

"I'm fascinated with her. I'm 80 and her memory is far better than mine," Irwin said. "She's very outgoing — I dare say she knows everybody in the North Tower. She's very friendly that way. She's got lots of friends."

At Pinecrest, Connell hasn't stopped organizing and making herself useful.

"I help Diane with social work," she said. "I help put up the Christmas trees and all that. I put together a magazine every month."

Friends and family will help Connell celebrate a century of living on Aug. 16 with a big party at Pinecrest Place. She hopes her stepson will be there.

People likely will ask her what her secret is to a long life. She'll tell them, "I never drank, I never smoked and I never ran around too much."

But she will eat the cake on her birthday, right?

Avera paused, then said, "I try to stay away from sweets … ."

Largo woman, a WWII veteran, reflects on life as she approaches 100 07/20/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 10:47pm]

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