RIP my friend, John Landry |

RIP my friend, John Landry

Photo for The Union by John Hart
John Hart | The Union

He was there nearly every day, a very old man sitting in a plastic chair near the cash registers at SPD’s Nevada City store.

He’d eat a single cookie, picking the crumbs off his lap and watching customers file by. Now and then, a customer stopped to greet him, bringing forth a delighted grin and twinkle in his eyes. In October a couple of years ago, there are more hugs and handshakes than ever. A man doesn’t reach 100 years old every day, make front-page news or celebrate with a cookie feast at his church. But it takes more than cookies to live such a long, happy life.

On Tuesday, Jan. 22, that life came to an end. John Landry of Nevada City died at 101 years old. For his wife, Jane, and others who knew him — those in his neighborhood, at SPD, at Nevada City’s Trinity Episcopal Church, those at the Nevada City Elks Club — John represented the very essence of living life to the longest and the fullest.

In a century when one career was enough for most workers, John Landry has had many lives. After studying for diplomatic service, he became a banker, then federal bank examiner, a military finance officer during World War II, post-war farmer and, late-in-life, family man.

His was born Oct. 25, 1911, in the hamlet of Conway, N.H. His father lived to 104, one of two brothers to 101 and his mother and sister to their late 90s. Besides longevity, brain power is also in the family DNA. One brother — the acknowledged genius of the family — became a university professor. John’s sister became the first woman chief justice of New Hampshire’s Supreme Court. John was the first to go to college, completing three years at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., before agreeing to quit so the family could afford to send his “genius” younger brother to MIT.

Leaving college and applying for a job in a bank in Washington, he learned the bank’s president was from his hometown. He was hired on the spot.

“Getting a job back then was pure luck,” John recalled. “Being an eligible bachelor in a town with more women than men was even luckier.”

Next career stop for John was a better job as federal assistant bank examiner, as recommended by his New Hampshire senator.

Joining up to see combat in World War II, he was assigned to Army Finance instead and promoted to increasingly responsible assignments, rising to the rank of major by the war’s end. To prepare for occupying a defeated Japan, he and others were sent to Harvard to study Japanese culture and language. When Japan surrendered, Major Landry was charged with constructing a total banking system for Korea, which had been liberated from Japanese control. The Japanese commander in Seoul actually offered his sword in surrender to the young major who refused it. John Landry never was one for pomp and ceremony.

Returning to California from Korea, John resigned his Army commission and set out for a new life — in farming. He remembered the appeal of the farming life since his childhood buggy rides through the New Hampshire countryside with his father. And he’d examined enough bank records to know there was money to be made from the soil.

He enrolled in ag courses at the University of California, Davis, and worked on the university’s farms during the summer. He learned about a new, improved alfalfa type of foundation seed; foundation seed is needed to produce commercial crops. He would be a seed farmer. Within a few months, he’d purchased acreage near Stockton and started into production. He’d tried making friends and potential customers of neighboring growers, but that posed a new challenge. Why would they buy from a New England banker who a) wasn’t Italian; and b) didn’t have generations of farming experience behind him?

As soon as they saw that he was producing quality seed and lots of it, curiosity got the best of them, Landry said. His worst skeptics became his best friends and customers. And those who were bachelors quickly found that Farmer John had a fun side to him.

“On weekends, my single buddies and I would hop in our trucks and race each other to the Bay Area,” John recalled with a wink. “We’d meet lovely ladies there — beautiful airline attendants and secretaries — and have some high ol’ times!”

Within a few years, approaching his 40s, John decided it was time to settle down.

One evening, he was on a date with a pretty Sacramento Valley girl when she told him that they weren’t meant for each other. His quick answer: “OK, but do you have a sister?”

She did. John and Jane, now in her 80s, were together more than 60 years. The Landrys have two children. One son, Scot, lived with them, while their daughter, Germaine, lives in Stockton. Another son is deceased.

After eight successful but physically demanding years in farming, John Landry resumed his banking career as a branch manager in Danville, Calif. Retiring and moving his family to Nevada City 34 years ago, he realized that his genetic heritage posed a special problem.

“Family history told me that I may well live a long time, ” John once said. “So, I’d better keep really fit to enjoy it all the way.”

That meant an active lifestyle, something he was accustomed to growing up and skiing and ice skating in New Hampshire and boxing for his college team.

John hit the deck running every day — well, walking anyway. His rigorous daily regimen started at 4 a.m. with a light breakfast with Jane followed by exercise with weights. Until recently he took the first two walks of a mile or two every day in any weather except icy conditions. He often saw his neighbors on those walks, occasionally getting a hug from one of the ladies. He used to say that they’re careful to hug lightly because: “I give back as good as I get … and more!”

After his Sunday morning walk, he attended the 8 a.m. service at Trinity. A religious man who did not wear his faith on his sleeve, he was quick to credit the holy ghost to get him through each day. Another favorite was keeping up with current affairs, which he did by reading this paper, Sacramento and San Francisco dailies and the Wall Street Journal. John continued driving his aging Honda SUV until just a few months before his death. That didn’t stop him in his routine as Jane drove him to lunch nearly every day at a different location, then to SPD for that cookie and home for the afternoon walk.

In his gravelly voice, John said his formula for a long, happy life was nothing special: “… just good health, family, faith, good friends … and a lot of luck!”

If the formula’s not so special, the man certainly was … and is in the memory of many.

Dick Fay lives in Penn Valley.

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