AUGUSTA, Maine — Victor Lister, a World War II veteran and longtime teacher who recently turned 100, has a life marked by richness. He’s rich in friends, stories, experience — and above all, laughter.
Lister, a mirthful man with a kind word for everyone who passes through his downtown Augusta street, readily talks about his wartime experiences. He fought in Africa, Germany, Sicily and the D-Day invasion in Normandy, France. He received medals for bravery and the wounds he received in combat, including three Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts.
But those weren’t the only battles he’s had to fight.
Lister survived a bleak childhood in Augusta, where he grew up in poverty and neglect. He got no medals for that, but it may have helped form a lifelong habit of finding joy and appreciation for what’s good in the world.
That’s something that’s come in handy all his life, and is no less true now, as the coronavirus pandemic rages through the country and alters how people go about their everyday lives. The qualities of resilience and optimism helped Lister get through the childhood neglect, the Great Depression and World War II, and they are continuing to help him.
“I have to believe that all of life has a purpose,” he said.
Tough times came early
When Lister was very young, his father abandoned his mother. When he was 5, his mother died.
“I was a waif” after that, he said.
At first, he lived with his grandmother, who evidently didn’t appreciate his mouth — smart even back then. She’d wash it out with soap. She also boarded him out with other people, but they always sent him back.
“My cousin told me I was known as the brat nobody wanted,” Lister said.
His aunt took him in for a few years, until she kicked him out. At that point, Lister and a friend set up camp in an abandoned house. They found a stash of dried beans, and lived on those for a time.
The privation took a toll on his education. The other Cony High School students laughed at him because of the rags he was wearing.
“You should’ve seen the clothes I had,” Lister said. “I wouldn’t go to class if they’d laugh.”
Instead, with the tacit permission of the high school principal, Lister cut school. He’d roam downtown Augusta, checking the phone booths to see if any coins were left in the return. If there were, he’d go to the nearby Woolworth’s and buy breakfast.
Lister didn’t graduate. He took a job as a bellhop at the old Augusta House Hotel, where he noted the politicians weren’t great tippers, but prom-going high school kids were.
“The high school kids wanted to show off,” he said. “The politicians, they acted up. They threw things out the window.”
In 1940 — when he was 19 — he went to the movies and saw a newsreel recruitment advertisement for the U.S. Navy, featuring a big ship plowing through waves and a dramatic tagline: “Join the Navy and See the World.”
It sounded good to Lister. He hitched to a recruitment center in Portland, but by the time he got there, the Navy center was closed.
The Army center was still open.
“And so I joined the Army,” he said with a smile. “Thank God.”
Good grub and something to wear
His first post was at Fort Ethan Allen in Vermont. The food was plentiful and good, and the young man who had been mocked for his clothes just a few years before was proud of his brand-new apparel.
“I put on my new uniform and walked the streets of Burlington, just showing myself off,” he said. “I loved that uniform.”
Clockwise from left: Victor Lister, 100, shares stories and experiences from his life; Lister who was a young soldier during WWII in the 1st Infantry Division, “The Big Red One”, shares stories about how he received medals for bravery and the wounds he received in combat, including three Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts; Lister is interviewed in Augusta. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN
Lister found a family in the Army, where he was a member of the 1st Infantry Division, nicknamed “The Big Red One.”
“I liked it, and I was well-liked, too,” he said.
When the United States entered the war, he and other soldiers traveled across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary, a luxurious ocean liner in peacetime that was retrofitted to serve as a troop ship. There were 16,000 people packed into a ship designed to carry 4,000.
“We slept on deck one day and down below the next,” Lister said.
In North Africa, the Big Red One fought its way through Algeria, French Morocco and Tunisia, where he was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action. During an engagement with the enemy in late April and early May, Lister’s “coolness and courage in the face of enemy fire was an inspiration to the officers and men of his battery.” He voluntarily brought his radio forward to a better, but more exposed, position, and on one occasion went to the aid of a wounded comrade and got him out to safety.
He was wounded during an ambush, too, but not so seriously he couldn’t participate in the Allied invasion of Sicily, where he received another Silver Star. On July 11, 1943, when his artillery liaison section was badly dispersed by enemy fire near Ponte Olivo, Lister continued to operate his radio. Later, he moved it farther forward under fire to an exposed position with a better view. Thanks to the information he relayed, the Americans were able to fight back more effectively and enemy troops withdrew.
Lister still remembers Sicily fondly.
“You can’t beat the Mediterranean. It was warm. It was always pleasant,” Lister said. “That’s the first time I had Italian food.”
The saying that Armies march on their stomachs is a truism for a reason. Because he got along with the commanding officers, his fellow soldiers asked him to try to solve a persistent problem they had with supplies.
“Officers were stealing the fruit juice to mix with their booze,” he said. “I wrote to the commanding officer, complaining.”
But it backfired.
“He said, ‘I could bust you for inciting a mutiny,’” Lister said.
Omaha Beach and back to the U.S.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, he was at the heart of the action when the Allied troops made their amphibious assault on Normandy. Lister was on a transport vessel headed for Omaha Beach, the most heavily defended by German soldiers. His ship was sunk quite a ways from shore, and he had to swim under heavy fire to reach land. Once there, he scrambled up a narrow path to the top of the cliff overlooking the beach.
Around 2,000 Allied troops died on the beach.
Lister is taciturn when asked about the challenges of that day. But one of his treasures is a picture of his name written in the sand of Omaha Beach by friends who traveled to Normandy.
After Normandy, he fought across Northern France and into Germany, winding up the war in Czechoslovakia. When it was time to go home, the Army sent him on a train across Europe.
“I laid on top of the cars, and boy, did I get a tan,” Lister said.
Then, he flew from Marseille in a B-18 bomber to Casablanca, and from there crossed the Atlantic once again. This time, he was headed home to his new wife, Ruth Lister. He’d met the young woman with an angelic singing voice when he was at Fort Devens in Massachusetts.
“I heard her sing first,” he said.
They wrote letters during the war and then married while he was on his only furlough. Their marriage lasted 50 years, until her death in 1996.
“It was a very happy marriage,” Lister said. “I knew what she was worth.”
The couple settled in Leominster, Massachusetts, where Lister got a job at a plastic factory.
“I hated it,” he said.
So he went to night school to get his long-deferred high school diploma and found he had a hunger for education. He got a degree from Boston University and a master’s degree in history from Northeastern. Lister, the former high school dropout, took a test to join Mensa, a society for people with the highest IQs.
He became a teacher, finding he had a natural rapport with high school students.
“I never had discipline problems,” Lister said. “I said, ‘I consider it my job to teach you that nobody knows anything.’”
Later, he and Ruth moved to Maine, bringing with them Hillary, the granddaughter they adopted when she was 2. He is an inveterate reader and letter writer, and loves to keep in touch with friends.
They like it, too. He got an awful lot of cards when he turned 100 last month, and well-wishers from the neighborhood gathered outside his apartment to celebrate.
The pandemic has been challenging for Lister, an active man who used to count outings to the library, to church and other places among his normal routine. But his life philosophy, that everything has a purpose, is helping.
“It forces you to sit and think,” he said of the pandemic. “You don’t have any choice.”
Victor Lister welcomes new penpals. His address is P.O. Box 129, Athens, ME 04912
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the number of Silver Stars Victor Lister received.