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WWII veteran’s 96th birthday celebrated with drive-by parade and shouts from well-wishers

A WWII veteran's hat. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall)

Wally Shales wasn’t expecting much of a celebration for his 96th birthday Sunday because of the coronavirus stay-at-home order.

But Shales got a surprise that brought tears to his eyes. Cars started passing by his home at 11:30 a.m. led by an Elgin Fire Department fire engine for a birthday parade, a symbol of how Americans are celebrating special occasions during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s unbelievable. Oh man, oh man,” said Shales, as he sat in his wheelchair watching the colorful parade.

His family decorated the Demmond Street home he’s owned for 70 years with signs reading, “Honk! It’s Wally’s 96th birthday,” balloons and happy birthday banners. His daughter, Cindy Valentine, estimated 100 cars were part of a late morning parade and another one held Sunday afternoon.

Shales had no idea what his children — Valentine and her husband, Rick; Walter Shales Jr. and his wife, Patty, and Kimberly Higgins — had planned for his birthday. When he saw the parade, he started crying, said Valentine, who lives with and takes care of her dad.

In addition to cars festooned with balloons and carrying well-wishers, some of whom blew bubbles, the parade also included a historic fire engine from the Elgin Fire Barn No. 5 Museum, a classic red Corvette and motorcycles. One family drove past and thanked Shales for his World War II military service.

“Thank you, thank you,” Shales said, waiving an American flag.

Family wearing masks gathered on the sidewalk outside of Shales’ home to wish him well and be part of the birthday parade.

“We’re trying to be careful and do social distancing,” niece Alexis Shales said. She told people to maintain a six-foot distance from each other and her uncle to ensure no one spread the coronavirus.

Shales’ 2-year-old great-grandson, Gavin Ugarte, shouted, “Happy Birthday Great-Grandpa,” while his mom, Antoinette Ugarte, held him in her arms at a safe distance. The Ugarte family lives next door so Gavin sees a lot of Shales but the stay-at-home order means the two haven’t been able to spend anytime together, Antoinette Ugarte said.

Instead, Gavin and Shales connect over the fence between their homes, she said. “It’s been tough, but we yell as loud as we can and talk every day,” she said.

Shales is well known to lots of people. He was born in a home on Mill Street and came home after the war to start his own roofing business. “He roofed about a quarter of the houses in Elgin. He called himself Mr. Goodroof,” Valentine said.

He’s also known to sit in his yard and wave at every school bus driver who drives past, Valentine said. Shales spends a lot of time outside when the weather is nice, she said.

“He’s extremely active out in the yard planting flowers,” she said. Shales lost his hand to cancer two years ago but it hasn’t stopped him from making bird feeders in his workshop, she said.

Her dad understands why no one can come over but it’s been hard on him, Valentine said. That made Sunday’s celebration even more special and “absolutely beautiful,” she said.

Shales agreed, and joked, “there goes my heart,” as cars drove past honking. He had a good time, he said. “Every day, I have a good time,” he said.

His niece, Ursula Stevenson, caught the celebration on video. She told him the parade is a “it’s a reminder of how many people love you and how many people you’ve helped.”

Shales always has a good time, and and likes to sing and play the tambourine and maracas, Stevenson said. “He’s a lot of fun and has a big heart,” she said.


© 2020 The Courier-News