Chuck Hester: A good life at 94
Published 2:34 pm Sunday, November 17, 2019
While talking with Chuck Hester, it doesn’t take long for the Manteo resident to mention that he has led a blessed life.
Born in October of 1925 in Morehead City, Hester recently celebrated his 94th birthday at Pamlico Jack’s in Nags Head with his family of eight children gathered around him.
Back at his home in Manteo, Hester recalled some of the details around growing up in Morehead City.
“My mother was a teacher,” explained Hester. “My father didn’t always do the same thing, but he always worked. For a time, he was a cook and then for a time, he was a yacht basin guard.”
Recalling that he was part of a happy family, Hester said they lived in a small house with a bucket for a bathroom. And sometimes the bucket had ice in it.
He went on to say that while they usually got along, family life was not always in perfect harmony.
“My father and mother, two brothers and a sister all slept in two beds in one bedroom,” he explained with a smile. “We were a happy family, but my brothers and I would fuss about who would sleep in the middle during winter and who would sleep on the outside during summer.”
Home life also included oatmeal for breakfast every morning, with corn flakes offered on Sunday.
Although he drove a school bus at 16, up until his teen years Hester said he had never been more than 30 miles from home. Coming back from New Bern one day with his father, a tire blew out on the car and Hester said he had no idea how he was getting home.
“I was scared to death because I’d never been away from home before,” he said.
Drafted into the Army at 17 during World War II, it didn’t take Hester long to become a staff sergeant on an anti-aircraft half-track 40 millimeter gun. When a Japanese Zero dropped a bomb near his position, the hearing loss Hester suffered led to his military discharge.
Returning to a wife and child in Morehead City, he began building bridges with TA Loving Company as a concrete foreman.
There was also a brief episode of bootlegging that ended just a few days before the still got busted.
Rent in those days was $8 per month and the pay was 75 cents per hour. There were also four more children in the family before a divorce and a move to Manteo, where Hester helped build a bridge to Manns Harbor.
Traveling the country, in addition to the Manns Harbor bridge, Hester helped construct bridges in Currituck, Lynchburg, Shenandoah, Fredericksburg and Richmond.
Along the way, there were at least five times he fell or jumped off a bridge to help someone. One of those times, he almost drowned trying to retrieve a pocketbook for another worker.
“I’ve had some close calls,” recalled Hester. “Once I fell off the side of a bridge in Hopewell, Va. and another time I was reading a letter when the barge hit a bulkhead piling, sending me overboard.”
Hester said he was about to be run over by the barge before he could grab a rope to pull himself free.
While living here in Manteo, he met Naomi (Augusta) Collins, who became his wife of more than 40 years. Not long after, he went to work with the National Park Service, where he spent 21 years in the maintenance division and would have worked longer, but retired to take care of his wife who had Alzheimer’s. She passed away in 2009.
Other activities he called blessings included being a member of the Lions Club, 16 years in the Roanoke Island Volunteer Fire Department, treasurer at Haven Creek Baptist Church and The Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
Slowing the pace a bit, Hester said these days he spends most of his time working out at the gym and taking naps.
There may not be much truth to the daily naps, but he does make daily visits to the gym.
That’s because staying active is important.
“If you don’t use it you lose it,” he quips.
Hester almost lost it two years ago when he fell and broke his hip while “boxing” with his then 14 year old grandson. A boxer during his Army days (with the ring name Lightning), at 92 Hester was trying to show he still had some moves.
Then, after hip surgery, on the morning he was to be discharged from rehab, Hester had a stroke while getting ready to leave.
Those two setbacks served only to slow him down because Hester still gets around with minimal assistance of cane and infrequent use of a walker. And he still cuts the grass.
“I have had a blessed life,” Hester added. “I was never sick. Never got in trouble, or rather, never got caught.”
Hester has also expanded his travels from those teenage days around Morehead City. In recent years, he has been around the country from Arizona to California and even to Hawaii visiting his children.
“It sometimes seems life is darkest just before the sun comes up,” he said. “But I have had a good life.”