No matter how far he traveled from home, George Felts always seemed to be drawn back to Elkin, where he was born and raised.
Felts, who celebrated his 96th birthday on Oct. 3, enjoys sitting down with mementos from his past, especially his time on the USS Luna during World War II, and sharing his story.
The Navy veteran recalled his family history, explaining that his grandfather served in World War I and after returning from war he contracted tuberculosis and died when Felts’ father was 7.
To pay his way through high school, because students had to pay tuition at that time, Felts’ father would walk through the woods three or four miles from their home inside Surry County near the Wilkes County line to Elkin School using a lantern when it was dark. He earned money as a custodian at the school.
One of the things which Felts said continued to draw him back to Elkin anytime he left were “the neighbors and how people cared about people.” He said his father, after finishing high school, had a desire to continue his education, so his neighbors pitched in and paid his tuition to attend N.C. State University.
“That was pretty nice of our neighbors,” Felts said, noting that his neighbors still drop in on him to check on him and visit, some even leaving fresh garden produce in their wake.
Felts’ father worked for the Surry County office of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension after completing school. “During the Great Depression, the government issued out mules and horses to people who needed them to farm,” he explained. “He went out and checked on them and got them to the vet.”
In 1922, Felts was born. He went on to attend Elkin Graded School, and when he was 18 or 19, he said he was drafted into the Navy from Taylorcraft Aviation in Ohio.
He went through boot camp in Bainbridge, Maryland, and upon finishing boot camp, he was sent to Tampa, Florida, to the USS Luna, which at the end of the war with Japan was one of the ships on hand for the signing of the peace treaty.
“I had put in a request to go to school,” said Felts, who added his officer called him into his office for what he hoped to be approval for more education, but instead he was told he had 20 minutes to pack and get to the station to leave for Florida where he would serve as a shipfitter.
His time in Florida was short lived, as the Luna headed to Norfolk, Virginia, to be loaded with ammunition and supplies before traveling back south and through the Panama Canal, where it was camouflaged.
“We hit a lot of different islands,” said Felts of his tour in the Pacific.
He still has several shipmates who he is in contact with, one who he credits with saving his life as the ship was under fire at Iwo Jima — Steve Rizzo of New Jersey.
Among his memorabilia from his time in service are photos of his ship, the signing of the Japanese surrender which some of his officers attended, shells from the Philippines, foreign money, a history of the USS Luna and its maneuvers as well as a log of the soldiers on board.
“Our ship was standing off about 500 feet, about a quarter mile, but we saw them go up the gang plank to sign,” Felts said of the surrender which occurred on the USS Missouri.
He said it was a wonderful memory as the Luna returned to the states, traveling under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco as thousands of people stood above, where vehicle traffic had been stopped, to throw candy to the soldiers below and wave American flags as they came into the bay.
“Golden Gate Bridge was blocked off in San Francisco, and there were little ships in the bay giving us fresh fruit,” Felts said. “There were thousands of people on the bridge throwing candy to us.”
After being discharged, Felts returned to school in Nashville, Tennessee, and gradually moved closer to home, attending Appalachian to get a teachers degree and then N.C. State University.
For 17 years, he taught shop at Wilkes Central High School, and taught night classes at Wilkes Community College.
“You had to have 15 kids before they could reserve the classes,” Felts said of his start at WCHS. “I had 16 the first year, and the next year I had 151 to sign up. I had to call Raleigh and have them give me permission to recommend hiring another instructor.”
“I’ve had a good life,” Felts said. “I have to say I’m pretty well known around these parts. I have students tell me I’ve done more for them that their dad.”
He started a program while at Wilkes Central where he would have a Christmas party for needy young people in the community. Felts would get donations of toys and other items from places like Brendles, which was based out of Elkin.
Despite retiring in 1961, Felts said he’s stayed busy, either helping raise his son, who is now a dentist in Winston-Salem, or substituting in classes for his friends.
For 55 and a half years, Felts was married to Grace Swaim, who he met through his sister.
“When I first came home from the war, on Saturday everybody went to town to Elkin,” he said. “I went in to see my sister who was working at Belk. She was going to a square dance with her boyfriend and her friend Grace.”
He said he escorted Grace to the dance, and then they saw each other the next day and they never looked back.
Tears filled his eyes the day after his 96th birthday as he recalled his wife being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and dying just a few weeks later, 22 years ago.
Grace was a manager of several banks around the Elkin area for 41 years, Felts said, noting he had members of the community sharing stories with him about she’d helped them get loans for their first homes among other things.
After several years, Felts’ family introduced him to Lola Anderson of Wilkes County who he has been dating now for 10 years.
“I’ve done home health care a while, and I’ve never seen someone like George who has a collection of friends going back years and years who come by here all the time,” said Mary Bluemenkranz, a CNA who stays with Felts as part of Bayada Home Health’s services. “It’s just wonderful.
“He doesn’t ask for much, but they all show up,” she said.
Felts celebrated his birthday with a family dinner at Blueberry Hill Family Restaurant on North Bridge Street in Elkin.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.