What's the secret to reaching the age of 100?

Longtime Bakersfield resident and World War II Navy veteran Leonard Francis will hit that triple-digit milestone on the day after Christmas.

"Don't smoke," Francis said. "If you want to live a long life, you can't smoke."

Oh, yeah, and there's one other thing, he said. Find somebody to love. 

"We were married 76 years," Francis said of his late wife, the former Mary Katherine Brubaker.

"She passed away a few months ago," he said. "I still haven't gotten over her."

He paused, his voice breaking.

"I still cry," he said, "every time I talk about her."

Francis was recognized at an Honor Flight Kern County breakfast held Thursday at American Legion Post 26 in downtown Bakersfield, where scores of military veterans, their families and supporters in the community gather each month.

Several members of his extended family were present.

"So many World War II veterans have already left us," said Lili Marsh, executive director of the local Honor Flight chapter, part of a national organization that sends war veterans to Washington, D.C., to see and experience the nation's memorials at no cost to the veterans.

Marsh said it's important to honor the service and sacrifice so many have made for a grateful nation. And she was thrilled to help celebrate the 99-year-old's upcoming birthday.

Francis was born in Porterville on Dec. 26, 1917, but his family soon moved to Weedpatch, where he grew up with seven brothers and sisters.

He met his wife to be at Kern County Union High School — now Bakersfield High. They were married on Feb. 22, 1941.

They raised three children, two sons and one daughter — and they were blessed with five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

The couple celebrated their 76th wedding anniversary in February. Mary Katherine died less than three months later.

Francis was drafted into the Navy on April 19, 1945. He went through basic training in San Diego and was assigned to the destroyer USS Ludlow as a gunner's mate. The Ludlow escorted aircraft carriers and battleships in the South Pacific.

"I didn't do much," he insisted when asked about his wartime service.

After returning home, Francis worked for Coca-Cola and Advance Beverage. He and Mary Katherine owned the restaurant at DiGiorgio Farms for a period of time.

But it was in athletics that he excelled. At one point he had driven down to Los Angeles with a few friends to try out for the Hollywood Stars, a professional minor league baseball team. When he was invited to join the team but his friends were not, Francis demurred.

"He figured it wouldn't be any fun without his buddies," said great-nephew Jed Francis.

"He told me, 'They wouldn't sign them so I went home,'" Jed Francis recalled.

Nevertheless, Francis would excel in fast-pitch softball, playing on teams in the Central Valley that won four national titles in five years. He was named an All-American for his performance with the Fresno-Hoaks Packers in 1950.

A later iteration of that team, the Selma-Hoaks Packers, was inducted into the Fresno County Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005.

He switched to golf and Francis' athletic prowess lasted into his 90s.

"He shot a 72 on his 90th birthday," Jed Francis recalled. "Par golf."

With hand-eye coordination like that, maybe it's no wonder the DMV let him keep his driver's license until he turned 99.

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