100-year-old veteran counts his blessings

As husband, father and World War II veteran, 100-year-old William “Bill” Lancaster, talked about life from his Aurora home last month, most of his stories seemed to circle back to a common theme: gratitude.

“When I think about my life I’ve been really lucky,” said Lancaster, a parishioner of Risen Christ Church, “really blessed.”

Lancaster’s 100 years began when born to Edith and William Lancaster in Saskatchewan, Canada, April 13, 1914. Soon after, the family moved to the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, Mich., where he was raised with one brother and three sisters. When just 2 years old, he received third degree burns in a fire and lost his speech.

“When I got my speech back, I was tongue-tied,” he said. “The older kids would do anything they could to make me mad so I would swear.”

This led to fights, and too many fights resulted in his being kicked out of school.

“I ended up in a smaller school,” he said. “Well, going to a smaller school, how lucky can you get?”

He had opportunities, he said, both academic and athletic, that he never would’ve had in the big school.

“This way I was very, very fortunate,” he said. “And that’s the way it’s been all my life.”

In 1939, he was among the first to be drafted when World War II erupted. When traveling to downtown Detroit from Grosse Pointe to join the Army’s field artillery, his life took a turn after running into an old fraternity brother.

“Did you ever hear of the flying cadets?” the friend asked.

Lancaster hadn’t, but he liked what he learned. Following training, he would be commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Corps and be paid $200 a month in salary plus an extra $100 in flight pay: a much better deal than the $21 a month he’d make enlisted in the field. “My ears went up,” Lancaster said, and the adding machine started in his head, though it didn’t take much calculating to figure it was a better deal than the $21 a month he’d receive in the field.

However, he was eight hours short of the required 60 college credits needed, as he had left the University of Detroit to take care of family duties when his father had fallen ill. Help arrived in the form of an Air Corps colonel, a client of the service station where he worked.

“I’ve been trying to get into your outfit,” he told the colonel while servicing his car. The colonel found a correspondence course for him, “Modern European History” that qualified and Lancaster “made darn sure” he passed. The colonel personally delivered proof of his newly earned credits to Washington, D.C., to ensure they arrived in time for Lancaster to meet the cut-off age of 27: he was 26 years and 10 months old at the time.

“In 60 days I wouldn’t be eligible,” he said, again reflecting on his good fortune.

Another lucky day had come earlier, in 1934, at a Robber’s Dance in Detroit.

“I went to a dance hall, that’s the way it was during the Depression, nobody had money to date,” he explained.

“I had to wait to go cut in,” he said of a young lady, Anne, who caught his eye. “Wow, what a dancer.”

After the dance, he invited Anne to the University of Detroit sophomore prom.

“My gosh,” he paused, his eyes filling with tears as he recalled how beautiful she looked on their first date. “I not only had the best dancer, I had the most beautiful girl.”

He described her princess hair-do, the long green velvet dress and string of pearls she wore; and a deal they made. Because he was not in a position to marry and support a family, the two decided to date others, but stay in touch. Seven years later, they married on Dec. 6, 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor was attacked.

“I got married and three days later I’m on my way overseas,” he said.

Lancaster was shipped for Seattle to determine where he would go. After four weeks, he was sent to the partially Japanese-occupied Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Working as a bombardier navigator, he was involved in 12-13 missions, “maybe more,” when he was injured in a plane crash.

“I cracked up in a B26 (Marauder bomber),” he said. “I triple fractured this leg here (pointing to his left), and I had to wait for 24 hours before they picked me up to take me to the hospital.”

But as far as he was concerned, this was a “lucky, lucky day.”

“I remember it like it was yesterday, thinking: ‘I’m going to get out of this hell hole.’”

He recovered in Anchorage for three and a half months.

“My left leg is about half-inch shorter than my right leg,” he said. “But that didn’t make any difference to me.”

He was then shipped to Denver to recover at Fitzsimons Army Hospital for a year, where Anne was able to join him. After convalescent leave, he continued to serve in the Air Corps as a trainer until 1946. He and Anne settled down in Aurora, where he worked for Gates Rubber Company, and the couple raised a son and four daughters, including Gail, a sister of the Servants of God’s Love in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Hilary, victims’ assistance coordinator at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver. He retired from Gates when he was 62 and launched his next career in automotive parts sales, fully retiring only five years ago. He and Anne were married 69 years when she passed away in 2010.

“Really what it’s all about is family,” he said gratefully of his five children, 15 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild. “I’m just a lucky guy.”

Family and friends honored him with a birthday party at Risen Christ Church May 10.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”