Ninety-six-year-old Mountain View resident Lloyd Lettis seems to have a gene for longevity. And one for farming. And another for travel.
He calls himself “lucky” in his life’s circumstances, seeming to overlook the hard work that was involved.
Born in Watsonville in 1920, Lettis and his 95-year-old wife, Myrtle, have lived in their house in Mountain View since 1952. They have four children, 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
He was lucky in love. He and his wife met at an honor student dance at UC Berkeley, the alma mater of both. He tapped the person she was dancing with on the shoulder and took his place.
“Before we’d taken two dance steps, I asked her to a movie,” he said. “She said yes. We didn’t even know each other’s names yet. So … on the way to the movie, we introduce ourselves. In those days, I was trying to work my way through college. I had 50 cents in my pocket. There were 25-cent movies, but on Shattuck Avenue, ‘Gone with the Wind’ had come out and it cost 40 cents. We went to that, so she paid her own way on our first date.”
Less than a year later, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Rather than be drafted, Lettis volunteered for the U.S. Air Force, which “turned out to be a good thing,” he said.
The couple married in 1943.
“I married her while she was taking her finals,” he said. “She had a final in the morning and we got married in the afternoon.”
During World War II, Lettis managed to stay stateside, and his wife was able to remain with him throughout the war.
“I had trained at a special squadron – I was lucky enough to be picked up to go to Harvard to learn about new radar (technology),” he said. “So then I became a radar maintenance officer.”
He also received training at Yale and MIT.
While waiting for orders to go overseas, he asked his commanding officer if he could visit his family. But while out on the West Coast, he received a telegram to come back – the unit was shipping out. Upon his return, the unit had already shipped and he was reassigned to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
“So that’s why I never went overseas during the war,” he said.
Discharged in 1946, he decided to keep his commission as a first lieutenant.
“I didn’t keep it very long,” he explained, “because when the Korean War started, I was working with my father down at the orchard. I didn’t want to go to Korea – by that time I had two children and one on the way and didn’t want to leave my wife.”
Mountain View in the 1950s
Enter the Bay Area, where he worked as a telephone engineer at Lenkurt Electric (acquired by General Telephone and later Verizon). He bought a house in Mountain View “that’s turned out to be like a gold mine – we bought the house for under $13,000 in 1952,” he said.
In some ways, in the early 1950s the Santa Clara Valley was still “the Valley of Heart’s Delight,” but things were changing rapidly. Lettis described the scene:
“In 1952, our house was surrounded by apricot orchards. … In the wintertime to avoid frost damage to the apricots, they would use these smudge pots to keep them from freezing. But that smoke – even though you had your windows closed – the smoke would creep through. The apricot orchards didn’t last very long – you’d be surprised how quickly Santa Clara Valley changed from orchards to buildings. So when we got this place, it was just those two streets. The roads were more than a dirt road – they had oil on them. We were right in the middle of the orchards. Two years later, the apricot orchards had disappeared and became houses.”
Apples and pears
Lettis grew up working on the family apple and pear orchard in Watsonville, purchased in 1924. When his father went bankrupt in 1937 (he later recovered financially and paid off the mortgage), Lettis told his sister, “’Drop me off in Berkeley, which she did. My father didn’t have any money for college, but I had a brother who was a doctor, and he gave me $15 a month and that was enough, because then I’d work my way through. During the Depression, basically nobody had anything and things were very, very cheap. Tuition at Cal was $27.50 a semester. … I had saved some money, working on the side at JC Penney. I had $70 in my pocket when I went to Berkeley, so that was enough to get me started.”
He graduated with a degree in political science and was planning to go to law school, not knowing that World War II was on the horizon. After the military, he headed back to Berkeley; law school was cut short by an illness, however, which took him back to the orchard. When the Korean War started and he began working in the Bay Area, he explained that he still tried to keep up the 50-acre apple and pear orchard in Watsonville as well.
The orchard remains in the family, though now “it’s kind of like a park with oak trees in it. But it’s still a nice place,” Lettis said.
Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren
Lettis and his wife have four children. Their daughter Suzanne lives in Los Altos Hills with her husband, Allan Epstein. Lettis said the couple was honored with a Los Altos-Los Altos Hills Joint Volunteer Service Award in 2014. One of the organizations they work with is Friends of the Library, which led Lettis to one of his current activities.
“(Suzanne) was in charge of the book sales at the Los Altos Library,” he said. “She got me to help sort the donated books on Thursday mornings for the book sale four times a year.”
Lettis’ youngest son is a geologist and owns his own company. His middle son was a teacher and is now retired and living in Cape Junction, Ore. His oldest son worked at Lawrence Livermore Lab.
Lettis is close to his 10 grandchildren and has attended all of their college graduations. One granddaughter – both she and her husband are doctors – recently visited from Alaska with Lettis’ newest great-grandchild.
“It’s so enjoyable to be with any of my grandkids,” he said.
The longevity gene
Lettis attributes his longevity to genes, as well as physical activity.
“My mother lived ’til she was 96 or 97,” he said. “My sister lived ’til she was 96. … I’m the sole survivor. … All my brothers and sisters have died, but they all lived quite long. My father died when he was 88, so I think I have longevity from the genes. And also I have longevity because I worked on the farm. When you do that, it keeps you physical.”
Life in the orchards brought dangers, though, too – in the form of pesticides, which he said claimed the lives of two of his brothers.
Lettis said he should have been more careful around the toxins, but he still enjoys good health.
“My problem is just to try to keep active,” he added. “It’s hard for me to do when it’s raining. I like to do something.”
He still enjoys growing things and has 10 fruit trees in his backyard.
Hard work notwithstanding, Lettis maintains, “My whole life, I’ve just been lucky. Everything seems to fall in place for me.”
Lettis started playing tennis in 1955, introduced to the sport by his sister-in-law’s husband.
“Every time we’d see each other we’d play tennis,” he explained. “He was a much better player than I was. He played every day and I was messing around the orchard and other things.”
What began as a monthly activity became more frequent when he retired and began playing with a Sons of Retirement tennis group, and then with a friend. Finally, he joined a group at Los Altos High School, where he’s been playing for at least 30 years.
“All those people that I used to play with have died,” he said, adding, “I still have a lot of very nice friends that I play with. We play three times a week at 8 o’clock in the morning, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, if it’s not wet. We play doubles. … Nice group of people – I enjoy talking to them. I’m the oldest one, of course.”
The word on the court is that he’s a good player, though he’s always just done it recreationally.
“I love getting out in the morning and playing a little tennis – it kind of starts the day off right,” he said.
The travel gene
Since his retirement from Lenkurt in 1977, Lettis has traveled widely and said that he and his wife have visited more than 60 countries.
Four trips involved going back to his roots in Croatia, where his parents came from. He explained that Yugoslavia in World War I was partitioned off from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Croatia is one of the seven independent states in what was formerly known as Yugoslavia. He first visited the country in 1968; on the last trip, he went with his youngest son and his daughter to introduce them to their relatives there.
The Lettises made many trips on Elderhostel tours.
“Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, into St. Petersburg and a railroad car to Moscow – that would be one Elderhostel trip. Another would be Croatia and Slovenia into Hungary,” he said.
Other Elderhostel trips included Costa Rica and France.
“I love the Elderhostels,” he said. “You get to go to different schools or into people’s homes. … (With tours) you always know where you’re going to sleep that night and where you’re going to eat. When you’re alone, you have to decide.”
Other memorable tours have included Australia and New Zealand, Alaska, a safari in Tanzania and Kenya, and two trips to China.
“You could go (to China) 10 or 15 times and always see something different – just amazing,” he said.
Asked if there was anyplace still on his list, he said, “I would have liked to go to Bali.”
His oldest son’s wife is from Java.
“So she and my oldest son have been to Indonesia, Bali … several times,” Lettis said. “All my kids have traveled because I’ve traveled, I’m pretty sure. Besides that, I give everyone National Geographic for Christmas. I have two boys that have done more traveling than I have.”
The travel gene goes back at least a couple of generations. His parents came to the U.S. in 1898, and his father “went to the Nome Gold Rush in 1901.” But further back than that, Lettis’ grandfather in 1872 was part of an Austrian Geographical Society expedition, with the goal of reaching the North Pole. Unfortunately, they became stuck in the ice for two years and survived on polar bear meat; 27 of the 28 crew, including Lettis’ grandfather, were eventually rescued by a Russian fishing boat and lived to tell the tale.