You don’t want to miss meeting Harold

This blog post, about beloved Library customer Harold Woods, traces his epic life from childhood to the young age of 103! It appears in the Library's Annual Report

by Holly Schaffer, Community Relations Manager

One of my greatest pleasures working at Pima County Public Library is the opportunity to meet and interview customers about their experiences at the library. Knowing this is part of my job as Community Relations Manager, my wonderful colleagues often email me about different interactions that might make a good story.

So, when Vicki L. from Richard Elías-Mission Library told me about a 103 year old man who had recently stopped in to get his first Pima County Public Library card, I jumped at the opportunity to meet him. 

Harold, a book-loving, world travelling, Ham Radio operating veteran of WWII, and his daughter-in-law Dorris agreed to meet… I was thrilled!

I thought the best way to start would be to ask about the library card. I was curious—was it his first card? Boy was I mistaken. When I asked him, he gave me a quizzical look and replied, “Are you serious?” It became clear in that moment that, at 103 years old, he’s held his fair share of library cards.

Clearly, this interview wasn’t going to be about getting a library card. In fact, the card is only half (or maybe just a quarter) of the story. Harold’s life is the story.

Before our interview, Dorris sent me a copy of “The Story of Harold,” a piece she had written about his life to share at his 100th birthday celebration. Reading it gave me insight into Harold’s early days, including years in rural Canada. Dorris writes, “He lived outside Winnipeg on a rustic farm where bison trampled the filed, and the crops were hailed out two years in a row.” As he grew, his family moved to Winnipeg, where “he walked to school during 40 degrees below zero Canadian winters—long before the days of down ski jackets, thermal snow boots, and Hot Hands pockets.”

Thinking Harold might have some thoughts on “The Story of Harold,” I asked, “Have you read what Dorris wrote?” He gave me a smile and said, “I haven’t. Best way for it to be unbiased, plus my anecdotes would bore people.”

Nearly halfway into his eleventh decade, Harold is not lacking in anecdotes or a keen sense of humor. During his 100th birthday celebration in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he and his family have a winter house, more than 60 people gathered to celebrate. One guest asked, “What’s the secret to longevity?” Harold remarked, “Good food, you know potatoes, gravy, all that. And orange juice.”

At the celebration, he received a key to the city. “It doesn’t unlock anything,” chuckled Harold.

In 1940, Harold enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force as Leading Air Craftsman and embarked on an unescorted ship—the SS Leopoldville—headed for England on December 30. He led a crew of three airmen installing Identification, Friend, or Foe Stations (IFF) along the East and South coasts of England. He witnessed the Battle of Britain, experienced nightly bombings of London, and watched ships depart for Omaha Beach.  

After the atomic bomb ended the war, Harold was discharged and he earned a degree in Engineering Physics at the University of Toronto. After that, he started a new chapter by migrating to New York City.

At this point in our interview, Harold said, “Put in another dime.” There was more to the Story of Harold.

“I packed up and headed to Grand Central Station. There I was, standing outside the kiosk, not a clue in the world.” He asked someone for tips on experiencing New York. “The lady told me, ‘Son, New York will eat you up. Get back on the bus and go home.’”

It didn’t eat him up.

His memory is sharp—he remembers that first night down to the last detail. “I arrived, found a place to eat, and got to watch Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling in one punch.” He remembers his lunch routine. “I would go to the Automat. You know, you’d put in a quarter and get a meal.” Every night, he’d walk to Central Park and eat a roast beef sandwich at “a hole in the wall where Jack Dempsey ate, too. I had custom roller skates and heard Dinah Shore sing Oklahoma at ‘I Am an American Day.’”

When I asked him if his time in New York was his favorite memory, Harold casually replied, “It was just another interval in my life.” He’s not shy, though, to share his favorite memories, which include climbing the steps of the Leaning Tower of Pisa with his wife. “You can’t do that anymore; it’ll fall. It might be a trivial memory, but it’s a moment most people don’t have.”

In 1950, Harold earned his Bachelor of Science in Engineering Physics and then landed his career-long job at Southern California Edison. He began as a Helper/Testman and spent the next 33 years seeking and receiving promotions. In 1983, he retired as a Consulting Engineer. Dorris says, “He would finish his career in the Long-Range Planning Department, which calculated power needs into the decades ahead. Anyone plugging in a hair dryer or charging their phone in Southern California today has Harold Wood to thank.”

At Edison, Harold met his wife Louise. Their first date was the Pasadena Rose Parade. They fell in love, married, and had not one, but two sets of twins. They settled in San Gabriel and made memories as a family of six.

Harold recalled a trip to the Grand Canyon in April 1960. “It snowed the entire time and we were holed up in a small cabin with four kids under the age of eight. As we were driving out, the sun came out. We got a flat when I put the tire chains on wrong.”

As the kids grew and started their own lives, Harold and Louise took up travelling by RV. They saw the Four Corners, Black Hills, Lake of the Woods, The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, Lake Champlain, Myrtle Beach, Atlanta, Montreal, the St. Lawrence River, and Pittsburgh. “We skied on straw in Carbon Canyon in Malibu. New Orleans holds a very special place in my heart, especially the music.”

Some years ago, Louise began showing signs of dementia. From Dorris’s “Story of Harold”:

When she was forgetful, he would gently remind her.  When she was combative, he never returned an unkind word.  He was consistently faithful in conducting reminiscent therapy, showing her old photos and playing music from their era… When asked how he could possibly handle the physical and emotional pressure, his answer was always relentless and steadfast.  “Don’t worry.  I have broad shoulders.  A good British soldier never deserts his post.” 

Harold lost Louise, the love of his life, in December of 2016, but today he is still going strong. Dorris says, “He walks laps on the sidewalk every day. He loves going out to dinner, where he often gets a free dessert when they find out how old he is.”

Back in Flagstaff, Harold has lots of neighbors and friends. He sits out front talking to neighbors—there’s a man across the street who once brought over a camping chair to listen.

Dorris says, “His room is full of tech stuff—PC, iPad, iPhone, two color printers, and an ever-present microscope. We often have to tell him, just like a teenager, to put his iPhone down at mealtime.”

As Harold approaches his 104th birthday in February 2023, he still satisfies his sweet tooth with Oreos and eclairs and enjoys the great view from his porch when he’s in Tucson.

Throughout his extraordinary life, Harold has seen many places, created memories, and filled himself with knowledge. As we wrapped up the interview, I couldn’t help but think how incredible it is that, at 103 years old, he still holds libraries in high esteem and recognizes the importance of having a library card.

He had two things left to say to me:

“My parting comments, my friend Holly, is my mantra… to each their own. Oh, and Pima County Public Library is one of the best.”

Note: Scroll over the images for captions.

Harold Recommends


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The Boys in the Boat

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