Carnegie Hero Charles E. Britt celebrates his 95th birthday

Charles E. Britt
Carnegie Hero Charles E. Britt gets ready to blow the candles out during his 95th birthday celebration. Britt was recently the subject of his daughter-in law’s newspaper column.

This column, dated April 17, appeared in The (North Augusta, S.C.) Star. Columnist Phyllis Britt is the daughter-in-law of Carnegie Hero Charles E. Britt, who, at the age of 73, saved a 5-year-old boy from a burning home Nov. 3, 1997, in Norfolk, Va. Britt was awarded the Carnegie Medal in 1998. We are reprinting Britt’s column about husband Tom’s father with permission.

We have just returned from a visit to Virginia, in large measure to see Tom’s dad.

Charlie Britt will be 95 on May 10. He still has all his faculties. He mostly lives alone – happily, I might add. He still tries to cut his own grass – though his son-in-law tries to beat him to it and though he recently fell while picking up pine cones. (To admonishments from his daughter Deb, he would only admit that it took him awhile to get back up – but he did, and with no broken bones.) He’s still very active in the Norfolk Retired Firemen’s Association – sometimes to the chagrin of the local city council. I’m guessing it’s hard to say no to a request from a 94-year-old, especially one who is obviously working for the good of men who spent a career putting their lives on the line every day. And lately he has a renewed joy spending time with the youngest great-grandchild, 1-year-old Greyson, who has become Granddad’s “pancake buddy.”

This time, as we were heading up to see Granddad (what all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren call him), our son, Mac, asked if we’d try to get Granddad to talk some about his childhood and his time in World War II. Like my parents, Tom’s dad’s youth was hard. It was during the depression, and for much of his childhood, he lived with his grandmother, whose husband was an abusive heavy drinker. In fact, Granddad saw joining the Navy as a way out. He was still in high school, but was able to leave for the South Pacific with a promise that he would get his diploma anyway. After the war, he met and married Tom’s mother, and he eventually settled into a career in the Norfolk Fire Department, ultimately achieving the rank of captain. Even well after retirement, Tom’s dad continued his life of service. He was awarded the Carnegie Medal for saving a 5-year-old from a burning house on his block.

He then let the homeless family move in until they got back on their feet after losing everything in that fire – which turned out to be nearly three years. And since then the Norfolk Fire Department has established the Charles E. Britt Award for exceptional bravery.

Also since retirement, he’s continued to be self-sufficient. At 80 he decided his roof (on his two-story home) needed replacement. Without discussing it with his kids, he took it upon himself to do the job alone. Picture an 80-year-old climbing up and down a ladder with pallets of shingles on his shoulder. I know his son, my husband, wouldn’t think of doing something like that, and Tom’s not anywhere near 80. (And after that event, Granddad’s ladder “disappeared,” with a little help from Deb.)

Charlie Britt celebrates 95
During a celebration of his 95th birthday, Carnegie Hero Charles E. Britt, front right, poses with his children, Jane Hines, front left, and back row from left, Deb Brinkley and Thomas Britt.

Of late, Granddad is finally admitting that he has a few aches and pains. The main problem is his shoulder, which he broke long ago by falling from a ladder while replacing a light bulb in a telephone pole (a security light in the backyard of his mother, who lived down the street until her death). He’s also backed off on driving, limiting his time behind the wheel to daylight and short trips, mainly to eat dinner with friends.

So while we were there this time, Tom’s sister Deb expressed some concern about her father living by himself. She has tried to get him to move in with her, but he won’t budge. Tom tried to talk to him about it, but Granddad enjoys his solitude and his house, which he’s lived in for more than 60 years, and his independence.

The good news is that currently our nephew, Justin, is living there with Granddad, but Justin’s often away – one of the reasons Deb is concerned. She worries he’ll try to do things he shouldn’t when he’s there alone, rather than calling her.

Tom spent our time in Virginia at the house he grew up in, and he had insight into what must be going through Granddad’s head. After enjoying a few days sitting with his father in the swing on the porch and in the backyard, enjoying the quiet, my husband said, “I can see how hard it would be for me to give up living where we’ve lived for 30 years (and counting).” Tom pointed to our backyard, reminiscing on how many hours he’s spent pushing children and grandchildren in a swing; how much time he’s given over to planting flowers, trees and even vegetables in our yard; and how many days he enjoyed swinging in our “porch” swing, listening to the pond he built bubbling away.

Independence is a difficult thing to relinquish, I admit. Perhaps my biggest fear as I age is not being able to drive anymore. I cannot imagine the isolation that must come with no longer being able to go where I want when I want. Tom’s sister, along with many of her dad’s younger friends and former colleagues, have worked hard to be available to drive Granddad where he wants to go, particularly at night. But there’s still that dependence that, in your heart of hearts, you wish you didn’t have.

So Deb has wisely tried not to take away that feeling of independence. While she’d be happier with her father under her roof, she and her husband (whose own mother is likewise trying to age in place) are making every effort to do whatever they can to keep Granddad safe and happy at home for as long as possible.

As Rose Kennedy once said, “Age … has its privileges.” Indeed.