“To keep the heart unwrinkled, to be hopeful, kindly, cheerful, reverent – that is to triumph over old age.”
– Thomas Bailey Aldrich (19th Century American novelist, poet, editor)
ZEPHYRHILLS — William Lewis Haver III plans on celebrating his 98th birthday next month, which — if he had done nothing else, ever — is triumph enough for any man. Longevity, after all, is an ambition that persists long after others, from wealth and power to beauty and virility, have fallen away.
But living just for the sake of it — merely scratching off another sunrise on the karmic calendar — is not, never has been, Haver’s style. In a moment we will consider his resume, any segment of which could stand on its own as a productive lifetime’s work. Just now, we’ll say this: At an age when no one would fault him for swapping his boots for house slippers, Haver gets restless when he’s still in the house much past 8 in the morning.
This is, after all, the day the Lord has made. He regards as sacred duty rejoicing and being glad in it.
Six mornings each week from Black Friday through Christmas Eve, W.L. Haver — he started going by his initials as a lad to help sort out confusion over the mail — rejoices by ringing a bell for the Salvation Army near the exit doors of the Winn Dixie supermarket at State Road 54 and Coats Road.
Despite senses diminished by age and medical mishap — he wears a hearing aid and endures light-sensitive blindness linked to complications during surgery to implant a pacemaker — Haver remains alert to those who slip donations through the red kettle’s slot, singing out (in Abe Simpson’s tenor), “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Don’t ask how long he’s been at it. All he knows is the nearest oak wouldn’t have made decent shade for a toddler when he began, and now you could get a whole family picnic under there.
He’s become such a yuletide fixture that shoppers miss him when he’s not around. Says Trina Robinson, like Haver a bell-ringing volunteer from the First United Methodist Church Prayer Group, “They’ll ask, ‘Where’s the old man?’ ” and you can hear the worry in their voices.
Just belay all that. In February, Haver will keep his annual doctor’s appointment, and, having checked him out, the doc will say once again, “See you next year, W.L.”
He won’t get any prescription refills, because he takes no pills. Not one. “That rat poison?” he snaps. “I quit years ago.”
Instead, he swears by healthy eating, beginning with oatmeal mixed with raw clover honey, cinnamon and – I am not making this up – three heaping tablespoons of salsa. The hotter the better. Says Haver, “Jalapeņo peppers are God’s natural blood thinner.”
For dinner (he skips lunch), it’s chicken and noodles, or chicken and rice. Plus another spoonful of honey, “the only medicine God put on this Earth.” He goes through 24 ounces a week, and boasts an immune system so stout he couldn’t care less if you put him in a roomful of toddlers sneezing in his general direction.
He says he’s pain-free, and figures if it weren’t for the bad break on his peepers, he might still be putting gabled roofs over carparks, as he did at 85 ... although the crab-apple cane he uses for getting around says otherwise. Still, he plays enough golf that the club pro gave him a cap at the Zephyrhills city course, so who are we to sniff at what Haver might yet achieve?
The first of 10 children born to an itinerant railroad man and his homemaker wife, Haver bought, at 17, a dairy farm on the northern tip of the Michigan mitten and ran it for nearly 40 years. Ordered to Florida to help an uncle look after an aunt who’d broken her hip in 1971, Haver sold everything and headed south with wife Stella (who died in 2005), and soon was tending 200 acres of citrus grove (now the Zephyrhills Wal-Mart) for Owen Gall, interspersed with 20 years of missionary work at an orphanage in Haiti, where he sank most of what was left from the dairy farm sale into a well and garden irrigation.
There also were more enduring works: Three sons (a preacher, a contractor and an Alachua County “playboy”) and a daughter claimed by cancer at age 33; assorted grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and somewhere in Oregon, great-great-grandson William Lewis Haver VII, who’s 3.
A wonderful life, indeed.
American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, the economist and social scientist popular with conservatives, has lately been popularizing the findings of the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey about the four keys to happiness. Once you account for genetics and major life events (comprising 80-85 percent of an individual’s predisposition), 40 years of research says happiness can be created through family, faith, community and work.
Haver appears to have mastered all four by focusing on the one, and it’s the one that encourages him to be especially cheerful this time of year.
“The key to happiness?” he says. “Obeying the Lord. So many people are missing what Christianity is all about. Follow the Holy Spirit every day to the end and you will have no regrets.”
There you have it. W.L. Haver, one faithful bell-ringer, tolls the reason for the season six mornings a week every yuletide, and he keeps in his wise old unwrinkled heart all the year.