He grew up motherless, the 12th child of a lumberjack-turned-miner in the Iron Range town of Gilbert.

At 17, he planted trees, counted deer and fought fires at a Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp in the North Woods near Isabella, Minn.

Then Larry LaLonde became a decorated bombardier on a B-17 bomber during more than 20 combat missions against the Nazis in World War II.

But he scoffs when you mention his hardscrabble childhood or his membership in the so-called Greatest Generation.

“I guess looking back from a distance, my early life looks tough — but it didn’t feel that way,” he said, a few days shy of his 99th birthday on Tuesday.

“I’ve never really glorified what we did in the war. We didn’t ask for much, didn’t get much but some of us used the GI Bill to make lives of accomplishment.”

His stories provide an unvarnished history. LaLonde still lives in the modest home in southwest Minneapolis for which he paid $17,000 in 1954. (Today, it’s valued at $435,000.) He’s lived alone since his second wife died of ovarian cancer seven years ago.

“I’m managing OK,” he said. “I’ve always had an optimistic attitude toward life.”

Born March 12, 1920, LaLonde has no memories of his mother, Emma, who stood 4-foot-10 and weighed 100 pounds. She died when Larry was only 14 months old; she was in her early 40s.

“No one talked about it but the rumor in the family was she died giving herself an abortion” to end her 13th pregnancy, he said. “I think she just gave up and that’s my one disappointment: not having a mother. It might have been a different life, might have been better.”

Joseph LaLonde — Larry’s French-speaking, Canadian-born father — worked in lumber camps and ore mines Up North. Census rolls from 1920 list him as a janitor at a mining company in Gilbert.

“He never learned to read and liked the rough-and-tumble taverns in Gilbert on Saturday nights,” Larry said. “But my dad also was an accomplished gardener and we hunted rabbits for stew.”

Today, Larry says he takes pride in his fastidious housekeeping — “everything in place and a place for everything” — a habit he learned cleaning house for his dad.

After graduating from Gilbert High School in 1937, he landed at the CCC camp for two years.

“I think my dad signed me up,” he said.

He earned $30 a month from the government — $25 which of which was sent to his father.

“I don’t want to pervert my father’s intentions, but I confess it was a maturing experience.”

He headed to the University of Minnesota in 1939 but “felt overwhelmed” in the Twin Cities. “It was discomforting because everyone was better dressed and more sophisticated.”

Sick of school, he enlisted in the military a few months after the Pearl Harbor attack.

“I was not a patriot — I was provoked by the fervor on campus,” he said. “I was never a natural warrior loaded with testosterone. It was a job. I did my best but was never gung-ho.”

He signed up to become a bombardier in the Army Air Corps to avoid a medical corps assignment in Asia — “I didn’t like the sight of blood and lacked the confidence to be a navigator or pilot.” Serving in B-17 bombers, he said, was like “riding in an oversized truck.”

After the war, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the U. He spent 28 years with Minneapolis Public Works — retiring in 1982 as a personnel administrator who oversaw more than 2,000 employees over the years.

Married twice, he took up tennis after his divorce from his first wife — playing regularly until he turned 95. He has two sons, two stepchildren and one grandchild.

LaLonde attributes his longevity to never smoking, limited alcohol consumption and “spiritual credit” chalked up during World War II — thanks to three pairs of silk stockings.

He purchased the stockings back home after Army buddies told him English women were desperate for such leggings during the lean war-year shortages. On a leave from his British base, he traveled alone on a train to London — hoping the gift of the stockings would become an icebreaker with women.

“I wandered around the hotel where American officers were staying, but met no one and was heading back to our base on the train,” he said. “I saw a woman wearing a threadbare coat and noticed she had no nice stockings, so I handed her the three pairs as I got off the train and wished her a merry Christmas.”

They hadn’t spoken at all, but that gift to a stranger might have netted dividends.

“I’ve never felt more spiritual than that moment I gave her the socks,” LaLonde said. “I think that might explain the spiritual credit I’ve received to make it to 99.”

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918.