AURORA – Surrounded by family, Johnny Kee sat quietly and took in a sight he never expected, a black Purple Heart cap, blue and white blanket and leather jacket keeping him warm on a crisp fall Saturday.
Streams of cars passed by to honor him. A row of American flags, recognizing his service, lined the street in front of the Sunnymere assisted living facility in Aurora where Kee now lives. A huge sign marked the occasion, flanked by more flags.
Red, white and blue balloons adorned the front porch Kee sat at, with gold balloons spelling out “100.”
“I wasn’t expecting all of this, didn’t expect to see all of these people,” Kee said. “It’s good to see everybody.”
It was a well-deserved celebration of a milestone day for a man who served his country.
Kee, a World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient, celebrated his 100th birthday on Saturday. Kee, a native of Tennessee who lived in Plano for close to 20 years while working for Caterpillar, was honored with two parades of cars decked out with American flags that came by Sunnymere.
Members of American Legion Post 84, who organized the event with Sunnymere, and Post 1944, participated.
In one moment, three men stepped out of their car, saluted Kee, and said “Johnny Kee, thank you for your service.”
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event, an honor to come and honor him,” said Gary Krolik of Post 1944, who has visited Kee once a month, pre-pandemic, with the Visiting Veterans organization. “It’s because of guys like him that we’re even able to gather today. We tip our hat to him.”
Kee, the second-oldest of nine children, grew up on a farm outside Camden, Tenn., 100 miles west of Nashville.
He married his first wife, Mary, in 1941. He planned to join the Army in 1943, a plan put on hold for a year when the Kees had their first of three children.
Kee has told family that he hitchhiked from Camden to Memphis when he enlisted, although he jokes “don’t believe everything I tell you.” He rode the long train to basic training in Texas, then was sent to the Philippines as part of the Third Army’s 32nd Infantry Division.
At the Battle of Luzon, on April 29, 1945, as Kee jumped headfirst into a foxhole, a bullet went clear through his foot, grazing his head by his eye. Kee was awarded the Purple Heart while in the hospital in the Philippines.
The framed medal hangs on the walls of Kee’s room at Sunnymere, as does the Western Union telegram sent to Kee’s wife notifying her that he had been wounded, and his certification of military service, with an honorable discharge on Feb. 12, 1946 with the rank of corporal.
Kee landed in Seattle after the war, and took the train back to Tennessee.
Kee, his family by his side, weeps from time to time in recalling those days. His son, Jack, said his dad never used to talk much about the war, but has done so more frequently in recent years.
“Sometimes I can’t remember everything,” Kee said. “It’s been a long time.”
“He’s a proud man, that’s why I think this day is so emotional for him,” said Cindy Kee, Jack’s wife. “He’ll say that he didn’t do anything special.”
Kee drove a bus for a spell after the war, then moved his family from Tennessee to Illinois when he started at Caterpillar in the mid 1950s.
The family lived in Somonauk and the Blackberry Heights subdivision in Aurora, before buying a house in Plano in the early 1960s, where Kee lived until he retired.
Jack Kee said his dad loved to bowl, play pool and make frequent new car purchases. He used to watch more sports – a baseball guy, Kee’s team was the St. Louis Cardinals – but nowadays watches mostly reruns of Gunsmoke on MeTV.
“He was a good father and a good provider,” Jack Kee said. “He made sure we had everything we needed. He grew up eating pork and eggs on a farm and he’s lived to be 100.”
Ruth Isiminger, Executive Director of Sunnymere, recalled with a smile the first time she met Kee, right before he came to stay there in 2015.
“I shook his hand and he said, ‘You’re not going to believe how old I am,'” Isiminger laughed. “When he told me he was 94 at the time I said, ‘You’re a spring chicken.’ John has always been sweet and unassuming. This is so important. He always said he wanted to live to 100, and he’s going to get that.”
Isiminger said that Kee’s face lights up when he sees other servicemen. On Veteran’s Day, she noticed his face change when they stopped by. So she appreciated what Post 84 put together after she contacted them.
“I told them I have this gentleman, he’s a World War II veteran and he deserves something special,” she said. “They took it and ran with it.”
“Johnny, he’s a blessing,” Krolik said. “He’s just a joy as an individual.”