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WWII veteran from Madison on a quest to have 99 new adventures before his 100th birthday

Lewis Harned is one adventure away from reaching his goal by August

Lewis Harned of Madison aims to try 99 new things before his 100th birthday. Margaret Faust/WPR

In the last year, retired Brig. Gen. Lewis Harned zoomed down a dragstrip in a racecar, tried indoor skydiving and rode on the back of a Harley Davidson.

All that was in service of a big goal: the World War II veteran hopes to fulfill a bucket list of 99 new adventures in the year before his 100th birthday in August.

Other activities were less heart-racing but equally meaningful. He volunteered at the International Crane Foundation, read a book to a third-grade class at his old elementary school and played bingo for the first time.

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One standout: waterskiing on the Mississippi River.

“I didn’t realize how cold the Mississippi (River) was. If I’d known that I would have had a wetsuit, but that was OK,” Harned said.

Harned is close to reaching his big goal. After attending a concert in Madison on Wednesday night, he will be just one adventure away from crossing off the last item on his list.

The World War II veteran eats breakfast with about eight buddies every morning at his retirement community in Madison. His friends often ask, “How do you do it?”

He has a big smile, a frequent laugh and a matter-of-fact personality.

“Oh my. Well, I’ve always been a doer,” Harned said.  

Despite arthritic knees and hip, he said he doesn’t feel nearly 100 years old.

He tried the Olympic sport curling, threw the first pitch at a Madison Mallards baseball game and ate his first-ever cream puff at a county fair.

Kevin Ropson gave Lewis Harned a ride on the back of his motorcycle at a Hogs For Heroes event. Photo courtesy of Linda Harned

Bucket list item number 95 was a trip to Great Lakes Dragaway. The Brew City Gassers, a drag race organization in southeast Wisconsin, invited Harned to ride in a parade followed by a race down the drag strip.

Tim Hackbarth, a member of the club, organized the visit and raced down the strip with Harned by his side. Hackbarth was impressed by Harned’s curiosity and zest for life.

“(He is) probably the most excited, happy, spry, 100-year-old I’ve ever met,” Hackbarth said. “His generation made a lot of sacrifices for all of us. I was very honored to have him with me.”

At the strip, the announcer said, “If you never slow down, you’ll never grow old.”

“That’s my motto,” Harned said.

A life of military service

Although he was eventually inducted into the U.S. Army Hall of Fame, Harned was initially rejected from the military.

After he graduated Wisconsin High School in Madison in 1942, he tried to enlist in the military. But he was deemed medically unqualified due to his near-sightedness.

Harned volunteered for the American Field Service and was attached to the British Eighth Army as an ambulance driver. He saw fighting in Northern Africa and participated in major campaigns in Italy, including the invasion of Sicily and the Battle of Monte Cassino. 

He returned to Wisconsin and earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Afterward, he earned a Doctor of Medicine degree from Hahnemann Medical School, now known as Drexel University College of Medicine, and became an orthopedic surgeon.

But his military service did not end. He was commissioned as a Warrant Officer in the Army. He was transferred to the Air Force, serving as a surgeon at a field hospital. He later joined the Wisconsin National Guard and was in command of an evacuation hospital during Desert Storm, commanding nearly 400 soldiers at a hospital in Kuwait.

During Desert Storm, he was the oldest commander in the conflict at 65 years old. He was promoted to Brigadier General and retired from the military for a final time in 1992.

Lewis Harned was the Grand Marshall at the Monona Memorial Day Parade. Photo courtesy of Linda Harned

Being a veteran is key to Harned’s identity. Many of his bucket list items are connected to his time in the military.

“I just don’t want to see them forget us,” Harned said.

In March, Harned returned to his elementary school in Madison where he was a student in the 1930s. He talked to a curious third grade class about his service.

“That’s one of the things that I tried to promote — what we veterans had done, and the fact that there won’t be any of us alive down the road,” Harned said.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as of Sept. 30, 2023, more than 100,000 WWII Veterans were still alive, including about 2,700 who live in Wisconsin. In 10 years, the number of living WWII Veterans nationwide is expected to fall to 1,000.

A ‘go-getter’ weeks away from his centennial

When Harned celebrated his 99th birthday last year, his daughter Linda Harned brainstormed how they would celebrate his 100th birthday. She wanted to start the celebration right away.

“Dad’s always been a real go-getter. And so I thought, why not come up with a list?” Linda said.

He’s up for almost anything. He rejected Linda’s suggestion of going up in a hot air balloon because he is afraid of heights. But he joked if he could have been shot out of a cannon at the Ringling Brothers, he would have.

As his project gained steam, he’s developed a bit of a local following. People will spot him out and about and introduce themselves and ask to take pictures. Linda is documenting his journey on social media under the name Lew Ninety Nine.

Harned is two events away from reaching number 99. The details of the final bucket list item are a secret. There is so much he wants to try and so many people who want to meet him that he will likely accomplish more than 100 new things.

Harned’s wish for his 100th birthday?

“Be alive!”

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