The year 1920 launched the Roaring Twenties and the decade ended with the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression.
It also was the year Wilbert ‘Bill’ Chesbro was born in Hollywood, California.
It was a shaky start.
“When I was born, they didn’t think I would live,” said Chesbro, a long-time Ahwatukee resident with Betty, his wife of 74 years. “I only weighed 3 pounds and was born at home.”
Yet he did survive – and he’s seen a lot of water flow under the proverbial bridge in the ensuing 100 years, during which Chesbro has lived a life of service to others while raising three children.
The couple emanates good cheer and humor as Bill recalled many of his life’s highlights and his wife occasionally popped in with tidbits he’d not mentioned.
They laugh together often.
While attending Hollywood High School, Chesbro worked for the Hollywood Reporter.
“I worked in the bindery and had a 36-mile paper route,” he said.
In 1936, also while still in high school, Chesbro joined the National Guard and, as his son said, possibly fudged his age to do so.
In 1940, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt incorporated the National Guard into the U.S. Army, he served in the South Pacific and – presaging his future – was stationed on various islands of the Philippines.
After the liberation of the Philippines, Chesbro headed home with no thought of seeing the islands again.
“As I was on deck with the guys and leaving the Philippines I said ‘Good-bye. I’ll never be back.’”
But, he says, God had other plans.
It was while fighting in the Philippines that he said he had a word with his Creator about his future wife.
“While I was in the service, I got a letter from a girlfriend I had intended to marry and she told me ‘I don’t love you anymore.’ I was in a foxhole in the Philippines and I’d pray at night and say ‘God, I want you to help me find a wife that will love and serve you the way I do.’”
After the war, while working for the telephone company, he met the answer to his prayer while waiting on the streetcar they both rode to work.
Elizabeth, or Betty as most address her, was 8 years younger and was living with her grandmother in the very neighborhood in which Chesbro was born.
“I was being transferred across town with the telephone company and I knew that it was my last day on that streetcar and I’d better ask her out,” recalled Chesbro. “She didn’t say no, she said, ‘Ask my Grandmother.’”
Because they resided in the same neighborhood, her grandmother could easily vet her granddaughter’s suitor who had lived there all his life.
And that was that.
After their marriage on July 5, 1946, in the first war-free summer for the U.S. in four years, Chesbro felt called to attend Biola College, now University, in La Mirada, California.
“I’d had no idea of being a missionary, yet I went to Biola with the aim of becoming one,” Chesbro said. “They thought I was too old – at the time I was 30 and married. My first child was born just as I was starting school.”
And where did he go as a missionary? The Philippines.
“We told the mission board we didn’t have any place in mind but because I’d been there during the war, and Betty had experience with heat in Arizona, they thought it would be the best place.”
The Chesbros spent 11 years there, establishing churches on several islands and welcoming their third child, John Chesbro, while living there.
Their only daughter and middle child, Debra Bennetts of Denver, said she had “a million stories” she could tell of their time in the Philippines.
But one remains especially vivid.
“We lived on the island of Masbate and it was April 12, my mom’s birthday. We were planning on going to the beach,” Bennetts recalled. “My mom came into my bedroom to wake me up and I looked out my window and the sky was red. The town was on fire and my dad was down there fighting the fire! Needless to say, we didn’t go to the beach.
“When dad came home, all his eyebrows were singed off. He was our hero!”
Returning to the states, Chesbro accepted a pastorate at Sun Valley Baptist Church, later pastoring at a Cornerstone Church in Chandler and all the while supporting his family repairing dry cleaning equipment.
His son John, an Ahwatukee resident and software presales engineer, said his father didn’t retire until his 94th birthday – and celebrated it by doing a boiler inspection.
Chesbro continued conducting Bible studies until he was 98.
He and Betty are members at Ahwatukee’s Pima Canyon Church, formerly Friendship Community Church, on S. 48th.
It had been anticipated there would be a festive open house at the church as there had been for previous milestones.
“We expected about 200 people to attend, that’s what we had for his 99th birthday, but with COVID, we didn’t feel comfortable having a gathering,” explained Betty.
Instead, last Saturday, a drive-by of well-wishers offered their birthday greetings.
It was estimated more than 100 cars were in the parade, many of them decorated.
‘I can’t believe Bill’s turning 100, but then I can’t believe I’m 92,” laughed Betty. “He’s such a very special man; he’s loving, kind, supportive and he was a great pastor.”
Added her husband:
“I’ve been through quite a bit in my life. There have certainly been a lot of changes,” he said, pointing out the leaps in technology, from the candlestick phone of the 1920s, the hand-cranked generators for WWII field phones, to today’s ubiquitous SmartPhones.
“I was a master sergeant of communications with the 160th Infantry and now here I sit holding a cell phone in my hand,” he laughed.
He remains unabashed in his love of his country.
“I love America; I’m thankful I was born here and I’m thankful I had the privilege of serving, even under harsh conditions,” he said.
“And I’m proud to be a citizen. Every day we fly the flag,” he said proudly. “I have faith in America, and in our system. And we have the privilege of voting according to our conscience.”
The Chesbros’ oldest son Bill passed away in 2018. They say they’re grateful to have their youngest son John and his wife Jodi around to look in on them.
John Chesbro said it’s he that is blessed.
“Dad and mom have always filled every room with laughter, and make every person feel special, accepted and loved,” John said, adding:
“They are rare examples of what Christians should be, and they’ve had such an impact on so many people around the world. I’m lucky and blessed to have them as my parents, and to have them with me still.”