by David S. Jackson
Lawrence Brooks doesn’t talk very much. When he does, he is measured and intentional. For example, when Gov. John Bel Edwards called the 111-year-old World War II veteran on his birthday and asked him how he was doing, Brooks did not mince words.
“My roof is leaking,” he told the Governor.
Gov. Edwards immediately called the Central South Carpenter’s Regional Council (CSCRC) to see if they could help. The Baton Rouge and New Orleans-area chapters responded within hours to organize an effort. And on Saturday, Sept. 19, carpenters were inspecting Brooks’ Clara Street home, determining what materials would be needed to do the job and getting waivers signed. They started the work on Friday, Oct. 2. And the job was complete by the following Wednesday, Oct. 7.
Brooks, the oldest-surviving WWII veteran, was born Sept. 12, 1909. He was just nine years old when he survived the Spanish Flu, 20th century’s first pandemic. Now, more than a century later, he sits on his porch wearing a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic as a phalanx of carpenters busily constructed a new roof.
His 111th birthday was recently celebrated at the National World War II museum with a card drive that resulted in nearly 10,000 birthday cards from across the country coming in for Brooks. The father of five, step-father of five, grandfather of 12 and great-grandfather of 23 was also featured on CNN.
“The governor told us, you go out there and you build it like it’s yours,” said CSCRC senior staffer Kavin Griffin. “We went in to treat Mr. Brooks like he’s our grandfather.”
Griffin said his union group is normally called to work on some of the largest commercial and industrial projects in the world, but the job to replace Lawrence Brooks’ roof was extremely special.
“In my lifetime, I will never meet another man like Mr. Brooks. So today, this is the most important job that I can do,” said Griffin. “It’s really a privilege to work for a gentleman like this that paid the price for us decades ago. And now it’s time for us to help him when he needs help the most.”
Brooks served in New Guinea and the Philippines in the all Black 91st Engineer Battalion, but says that his experiences there were not overly memorable. Even though his unit received a Presidential Unit Citation for its work in World War II, it did not make a formative impression on him as it did with most of the teenagers and young men who served in the war. It’s probably because Brooks was already 35 years old when he joined the military, serving in segregated units abroad and facing discrimination when he returned to the United States.
Still, he says the key to life is to remain hopeful and thankful. It is a philosophy he espouses especially as he watches workers volunteering their time and skill to improve his home.
“Everybody was so nice. They just came here, did their job and moved on. I thanked them very much,” says Brooks, who was honorably discharged as a private first-class.
The CSCRC paid for all materials related to the project, about $10,000 worth. And 10 carpenters volunteered their time during various stages of construction. Griffin said Brooks’ roof was damaged after a company improperly installed solar panels.
The carpenter’s union finished the roof in a timely manner, wrapping up as the region faced another hurricane threat. Five days after starting the project, volunteers completed Brooks’ new roof—just days before Hurricane Delta hit the southwest Louisiana coast earlier this month, bringing some wind and rain that was felt across this region.
“I feel really good about that,” says Brooks.