Last year, when Walter Reynolds turned 99, he was on his feet, braced and steadied by a cane but able to walk. He lived alone in his house in Catonsville, having outlived four wives and two of his three children.

Each morning, he stirred his Nestle instant coffee and heated instant grits in the microwave. Relatives dropped off leftovers regularly and looked in on him, but mostly he looked after himself.

Over the years, his son, niece and nephew gently tried to persuade him to leave his house and live with professional assistance, but he was too stubborn to leave his home of 60 years on Winters Lane, where he had become a fixture on his block.

If the street needed paving or a pothole needed filling, “he was the guy you would talk to,” Baltimore County Councilman Pat Young said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Baltimore County Councilman Pat Young joined the celebration for World War II veteran Walter Reynolds on his 100th birthday. (Hugo Kugiya / The Baltimore Banner)

Within a few months of his 100th birthday, Reynolds fell. Then he fell twice more, injuring his arm. He needed more care than he could give himself, so he checked into a nursing facility a few miles away, Meadow Park Rehabilitation and Healthcare, where he turned 100 Saturday in the company of about 20 guests.

“If I make it to 100, I want a party,” he had told his family as he neared the milestone.

A planned dinner celebration at the Stanford Grill in Columbia was canceled after his last tumble, so the family gathered in the dining room of Meadow Park on Saturday afternoon along with a few neighbors and, because Reynolds has become something of a big deal, several politicians showed up to present him with special citations for his military service.

Reynolds was drafted at age 18 into a segregated U.S. Army in the middle of World War II. He was sent to Europe, setting sail aboard the Queen Elizabeth to Plymouth, England. He was a driver for what would be known as the Red Ball Express, a truck convoy operated mostly by African American soldiers, who delivered critical supplies to troops after the D-Day invasion. Reynolds called his unit the Tuskegee Airmen of the ground.

“We would deliver food and ammunition,” Reynolds said. “I had plenty of close calls, plenty.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The trucks of the Red Ball Express were bombed and shot at as they made their way inland from the coast of France. About 6,000 trucks delivered 12,500 tons of supplies a day for nearly three months, until port facilities and rail lines could be repaired and opened.

Reynolds survived duty in Europe and in the Philippines, where he also delivered supplies. He reached the rank of first sergeant before being discharged. To this day he can recite his serial number, 35924077, and speak some of the French he used while on leave in Paris. He donned a black suit, white shirt and black beret for these special trips.

“He learned just enough French to get into trouble, and not the good kind,” his niece Arlene Wilder said.

Reynolds arrived for his party in a wheelchair, pushed by his son Tyrone Reynolds. Reaching 100 was at the top of his father’s bucket list, Tyrone said. There were cookies, cake, balloons and formal decrees from the Baltimore County Council, the offices of Del. Aletheia McCaskill, Del. Eric Ebersole, Del. Sheila Ruth, Sen. Charles Sydnor and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and, as a finale, the White House.

Walter Reynolds was born in Spring Hill, South Carolina, on Feb. 24, 1924. He was the youngest of 10 children (and is the last living sibling). A few of his siblings moved to Ohio during The Great Migration, and Reynolds followed them there before he was drafted. He settled in Maryland after his discharge from the Army, working as a waiter, a cook, a bricklayer, a bus driver and eventually a plumber, his longest-tenured vocation. He was a certified master plumber and a member of the Plumbers and Steamfitters union.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

He was a “ladies’ man” Wilder said. He has four grandchildren, and he retired at the age of 60, a long-forgotten milestone.

His son has noticed a steep decline in his father the past year. He mostly “just sits in one spot,” Tyrone Reynolds said. “He doesn’t watch TV; he just sits.

“He’ll be sitting there with his eyes closed and you’ll think he’s asleep, but he’s listening to the conversation around him. He can tell you everything you said.”

Walter Reynolds is a light sleeper, taking short naps throughout the day instead of sleeping through the night. He often feels tired. He cherishes one thing more than any.

“I haven’t lost my ability to think right,” he said.

Hugo Kugiya is a reporter for the Express Desk and has formerly reported for the Associated Press, Newsday, and the Seattle Times.

More From The Banner