June 18–BLOOMINGTON — Growing up in Bloomington-Normal during the Great Depression, Leo Carroll was hungry.
“I’m Catholic, but it was no problem for me not having meat on Fridays because we didn’t have meat all week,” Leo said. Then he smiled.
But throughout his life, Leo also has been hungry for knowledge and experiences.
That hunger led him to the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, where he earned numerous flying medals, including two Distinguished Flying Crosses; several careers, including meat cutter, small business owner and laborer; organizing the Experimental Aircraft Association in Bloomington-Normal; and surviving prostate, colon and stomach cancer and investigational heart surgery.
He accomplished most of these things while being married to Rose Carroll for 72 years. They raised four children on Bloomington’s west side and have lived in the same home for 65 years.
Both are 98 years old.
“He has survived everything,” said his daughter, Mary Henson, 65, of Dixon.
“Growing up poor, he was hungry to learn things,” Henson said in the Carroll family home last week.
The home will be full on Sunday when many of the Carrolls’ children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren gather to celebrate Father’s Day.
“He’s an ordinary man who has led an amazing life,” Henson said.
“He is one of those gentlemen who, when you see him, you break into a smile,” said John Penn, a longtime friend.
“He’s easy to talk with and always has a story to tell,” said Penn, international vice president for Laborers International Union of North America. “But when Leo went to work, he did a great job.”
Growing up, “We were so poor, we moved around a lot, I think, because we couldn’t pay the rent,” said Leo Carroll, crediting the sisters at St. Patrick and Trinity grade schools with helping him, including with meals.
Growing up poor fed his quest for knowledge.
“I never had a damn thing when I was young,” he said. “I learned all my education outside. When you’re poor, you try everything.”
He was in the Civilian Conservation Corps for awhile, sending nearly all his money home.
He met Rose when she was a senior at Illinois State Normal University. Carroll was working at a grocery store; they met when she came in to shop.
“I never was crazy about boys, but I liked him,” Rose said.
“One day, my boss said, ‘Leo, why don’t you walk this nice lady home?’ I did because I liked her,” he recalled.
In 1942, during World War II, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps.
“I figured, ‘Why should I walk through this war when I can fly?'” he recalled.
He flew 116 missions over enemy territory in Burma, India and China. He was a liaison pilot, evacuating wounded British soldiers who were fighting the Japanese.
Once, he landed behind enemy lines in Burma when the right side of his landing gear broke. Working with a British doctor, they used bamboo to create a splint and Leo was able to take off before Japanese soldiers got there.
He had several other close calls.
He admits to being scared, “But I didn’t tell anybody. I said a lot of ‘Our Fathers,’ adding, “We lost a lot of good people over there.”
Carroll developed his sense of humor during his time in the military.
“You had to have a sense of humor when you were in the service because there was a 98 percent chance that we wouldn’t make it,” he said. “I learned to watch the smart ones and learn from them. I learned to enjoy everybody.”
On June 4, 1945, he returned stateside and he and Rose were married in Spokane, Wash. During the last few months of the war, he was stationed in Montana because the Japanese had sent over thousands of balloons with attached firebombs set to be released over forests of the American Northwest. Some did reach their targets and started fires, but they had no impact on the outcome of the war.
After the war, the couple moved to Detroit where Leo worked in a Cadillac factory. Then he went to meat cutter school, became a meat cutter and they returned to Bloomington-Normal.
He worked for several grocers — including Kroger and A&P — and for several years owned Leo’s Grocery Store on Sudduth Road, now College Avenue, in Normal.
In the 1960s, he switched careers and joined Laborers Local 362. Among the buildings he helped to build was ISU’s Watterson Towers.
After retiring, he went to work for Stroink Pathology Laboratory, later LabCorp, as a driver. He also got a Realtor Broker license to support Rose, who became a Realtor after retiring from teaching.
Along the way, he got licenses to drive motorcycles and trucks, even though he didn’t own any.
“He was always looking for something to accomplish,” said his wife. “He was always hungry to learn something new.”
Through it all, he beat prostate, colon and stomach cancer.
“I prayed a lot,” he said.
Three years ago, Carroll was approved for an investigational heart valve surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago to replace a diseased aortic valve.
Though Leo turned 95 while he was in the hospital, he was a good candidate for the procedure because he was otherwise healthy, said Dr. S. Chris Malaisrie, the cardiac surgeon who performed the surgery. Without it, his life expectancy was a year or less, Malaisrie said.
“We believe Leo is the oldest patient in the trial,” said Malaisrie, noting the surgery was a success and the device used in the procedure has since been approved by FDA.
“I am at the same time impressed but not surprised that Leo did well after his open heart surgery,” Malaisrie said. “He truly benefited from a minimally invasive procedure …”
While Leo and Rose get help from medical professionals, their children, grandchildren and neighbors so they can stay in their own home, they also take care of themselves and each other.
“He just makes up his mind that he’ll do well,” said Rose.
“I pray a lot,” said Leo, who is dealing with a recurrence of stomach cancer. “I don’t ask Jesus Christ for a lot of favors.”
“And they have each other,” said their daughter.
“I can’t die because I need to take care of her,” said Leo, nodding at Rose.
“And I can’t die because I need to take care of him,” Rose responded.
They both smiled.
By Paul Swiech, The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Ill.
(c)2017 The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Ill.)
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