WINCHESTER — Leonard Kraemer celebrated his 21st birthday onboard the USS Erben, stationed in the Pacific Theater of combat during World War II.
“The last time I got this much attention was when I got married,” Kraemer joked on Tuesday afternoon as slices of birthday cake were handed out to the 30 or so Lions in attendance. “Later I found out everyone was there because of that woman I married. Nobody even knew who I was.”
Kraemer is funny, smart, vibrant and engaging, a man with a million stories and each one more entertaining than the last. His memory has faded a bit over the years, but that seems to be his only concession to getting older. In fact, if someone had walked into the room on Tuesday with the task of pointing out the 97-year-old in attendance, it’s doubtful Kraemer would have been the person chosen.
He and his wife, Therese “Terry” Kraemer, raised eight children together. Terry Kraemer died five years ago and their kids — some of whom are now retirement age — are scattered about, but granddaughters Sara Baker and Katie Timbrook, along with daughter-in-law Kitty Kraemer and her sister, Ann Hack, were at the Moose Lodge Tuesday to join the Lions in wishing Leonard Kraemer a very happy birthday.
“He’s stepfather of the year, every year,” said Hack, which prompted Leonard Kraemer to respond, “She’s my favorite daughter.”
The Lions sang an off-key, out-of-sync version of “Happy Birthday,” with members laughing loudly every time someone intentionally butchered the song. It’s a club tradition to sing as silly as possible so the man or woman being feted has something extra to smile about on their special day.
“Want to say a few words, Leonard?” asked Winchester Host Lions Club President Sabra Veach.
“I’m not worth all of this but I’ll accept it,” Kraemer said with a smile that attempted to mask the tears of gratitude welling in his eyes.
Kraemer joined the Winchester Host Lions Club in March 1979 and went on to serve as its president for three one-year terms in 1992, 2001 and 2007.
“Did you like it, Leonard?” Veach asked about his terms as president.
“I’m outnumbered so I’ll say yes,” he replied.
After Tuesday’s celebration quieted down, Kraemer reflected on a few highlights from his well-lived 97 years, starting with the four years he served on the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Erben during World War II.
“I have six battle stars on my ribbon,” he said. “We never got sunk, but we hit quite a few ships. It was a great ship.”
After the war, Kraemer sold insurance in New York for the now-defunct Equitable Life Assurance Society, then traveled around the country raising money for private colleges.
Kraemer and his wife eventually moved to Stephens City to be closer to their children.
“My wife was an angel,” Kraemer said. “Our kids worshipped her.”
When Terry Kraemer died on Sept. 17, 2016, Leonard Kraemer was awash in grief and didn’t know how he would continue. That’s when a friend in the Lions Club gave him a hat that displayed the name of the USS Erben and a complete history of the vessel.
“The Lions thought I needed something to take my mind off the passing of my wife,” Kraemer said on Tuesday, the USS Erben hat perched upon his head. “It was one of the nicest things anybody ever did for me because it worked. I had something other than the sorrow of losing my wife.”
Kraemer said he has been blessed to live a wonderful life surrounded by friends and family who truly love him. When the end comes, though, he doesn’t think he’ll be going to heaven.
“St. Peter’s going to say to me, ‘What are you doing here, Kraemer? You had heaven on Earth so go below.’”