Lawrence World War II veteran, approaching 100th birthday, reflects on career with Concordia grocery company and military service

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Leland Perry, 99, at his home in west Lawrence. Perry will celebrate his 100th birthday Jan. 31, 2023.

Lawrence resident Leland Perry is just a couple of months away from a milestone many folks don’t achieve — his 100th birthday.

Perry is one of the last few surviving World War II veterans in the area, and still as sharp as he’s always been. His milestone birthday is on Jan. 31, 2023, and he’s still full of stories about his life growing up in northern Kansas, serving overseas in the 1940s, and raising a family.

Perry grew up and lived in Concordia, located about 50 minutes north of Salina, until he moved to Lawrence in the late 1980s for his retirement and remained here since. From high school until then, Perry worked for the same employer: locally owned Boogaarts Grocery. Perry started as a bagger and eventually became an ownership partner.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Leland Perry looks at a framed grocery bag saved from his time working for Boogaarts Grocery, a grocery company founded in his hometown of Concordia.

Perry moved up the ladder to the company’s president role, with Boogaarts merging with multiple grocery chains based in Oklahoma City and Texas and expanding to add regional stores. But Perry said the titles at the top of the company weren’t so important — they just “did their jobs” and passed around the president title a bit over time. It was a job Perry said he enjoyed in every aspect.

“I just never had any thoughts of working anywhere else,” Perry said. “And I wasn’t the only one. I had partners that were there that long, also.”

Early on in that career, Perry spent some time away serving for three years in the Air Force. He was stationed in England about 10 minutes outside Oxford with the 22nd Squadron of the Seventh Photo Group.

Coincidentally, Perry was stationed there with his older brother, who joined the military a year before Perry did.

“They needed someone that could talk and walk, so I said yes,” Perry joked. “We came from Florida to Colorado Springs, then went overseas from there on the Queen Mary (ocean liner). That’s a pretty good-sized boat.”

Forty years later, Perry and his brother would ride the Queen Mary again and reminisce about traveling to Europe with thousands of servicemen on a trip lasting a little less than a week. During the war, the ocean liner crammed as many as 16,000 troops aboard in a single voyage.

Perry was in a photographic unit, an air brigade whose job was to assist with aerial reconnaissance. They’d find a target area, take a photograph of it, bomb it, take another photo to assess the damage and how much rebuilding had taken place, then do it all over again.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Leland Perry holds a photo of himself around age 18. Perry is a World War II veteran, who served in the Air Force and was stationed in England.

One memorable story Perry shared from his time in military service was when his cousin visited and took him for a ride in a P-51 fighter plane, a different type of aircraft than the P-38 planes you’d typically see stationed at Perry’s base for photography missions.

Outside of himself, his brother and his cousin, Perry said his uncle also served in World War I.

Perry had a long and fruitful marriage to his late wife, Bernita. They were married for 75 years and had three children together. Perry’s daughter, Cynthia, also lives in Lawrence. Another daughter, Deanna, is a University of Kansas graduate now living in Maine, and Perry’s son, Stanton, lives on the opposite coast in California.

Though not everyone in the family went to KU for college, the family enjoyed going to Jayhawk football and basketball games over the years. Perry still watches KU sports today, including the basketball team’s 2022 national championship run.

“It’s just a nice community,” Perry said of Lawrence. “It’s a nice bunch of people.”

Perry won’t be the first member of his family to cross the century mark, though — living for 100 years runs in the family. Perry is gearing up to join multiple other family members in living to 100 years old. That includes his older brother and grandmother, who both lived to 102, and a sister who lived for more than 100 years.

His words of advice after nearly 100 years? Do the best you can with your time.

“It’s fine with me,” Perry said of his approaching birthday. “It’s nice to be around and have every day open up to you. Still is, it’s nice to get up in the morning.”

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