When Ray Burns strolls through his Westerly Creek neighborhood each morning and afternoon, he rarely goes alone. Burns, who will celebrate his 100th birthday on August 5th of this year, usually moves down the sidewalk with one of the many neighbors who affectionately refer to him as “Papa Ray.” Though he’s been walking for his own health and fitness for years, his walking has a new purpose, as he strides towards his goal of reaching 100 km before his 100th birthday, raising money for three charities.
Three decades ago, when he learned he had a major heart condition, his doctor advised him to walk—and he’s been walking ever since. Finding himself ahead of his centenarian goal, he recently decided he could start taking Sundays off. He now walks 2km daily to achieve his goal.
Burns likes to talk as he walks with his neighbors and supporters, and after 99 years, has a lot of stories to tell, from his childhood on a farm in rural Arkansas during the Great Depression to his military service. “He saved us really,” he says of Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who ushered the US through the Depression and most of World War II. “I was about ten years old, but old enough to know things were bad…when he started creating jobs, [like] the CCC [Civilian Conservations Corps] camps for the young men that gave them $30 a month and they’d work at parks, and about $20 of that went to their parents for them to live on.”
Burns recalls FDR with special fondness as the president who led the country through both the Great Depression and World War II. “He and Churchill and Stalin and de Gaulle, they made a great team. They worked together.”
After graduating high school, Burns joined National Guard Company B, 153rd Infantry Regiment early in 1940. He was called to active duty in December 1940, one year before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served in the military for 29 years, during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, including in the US Army and the Army Air Corps (which eventually became a separate branch, the US Air Force).
When asked how he views the current protests in light of his own service in the war against fascism, he says “It’s sad, you know. We’ve got the greatest country in the world….and I’ve seen it deteriorating to the point…certain groups hate one another—and I’ve always said, you know militarily-wise, I don’t think anybody will ever take us, but I think we’re gonna destroy ourselves from within.”
Burns worries about a generation of young people in debt from student loans, unemployed, fearful for the future and unable to buy into the American Dream of homeownership.
As the Front Porch goes to press, Papa Ray has walked 100km and raised $13,551 for charity. To donate, go to: https://www.paparaywalks100.org/ All funds raised will go to Operation USA, Mile High United Way Covid Relief, and Feeding America. More information about each charity is located at the website as well.