It’s not often that you get to celebrate the centennial of an iconic figure and shake his hand in the process.
But that’s exactly what happened on Saturday, Feb. 20, when the village of Kinnakeet gathered at the Avon Fire Station to celebrate the 100th birthday of one of the community’s favorite residents, Manson Meekins.
The party was just one component of a multi-day celebration of Manson — whose actual birthday was Feb. 18 when he was honored on Radio Hatteras, the community station. “They played a number of interviews that he had done over the years, and I happened to catch one of the little clips during a 10:00 a.m. interview,” said his daughter Kristy DiGeronimo, who was one of the party’s organizers. “I thought that was pretty amazing! He’s so sweet and he’s such a great guy and it just fills my heart.”
Manson was born in Avon in 1916 and after 38 years in the Coast Guard, returned to Avon in the 1980s. He has lived in the village ever since with his wife, Vera, and has easily been one of Kinnakeet’s most respected local legends.
“He’s shown so many people here about duck hunting and fishing,” his daughter, Kathy Case, another party organizer, explained, “and he’s been a part of the lives of a lot of young men in the village.”
And although one could argue that the term “young” might apply to everyone in Kinnakeet these days when compared to Manson’s 100 years, the attendance for the party was a huge cross-section of families, kids, grandparents, and relatives and friends who had traveled from miles away just to pay a visit and join in the celebration.
Roughly 75 to 100 people were invited, but there were easily 150 attendees who strolled in and out of the Avon Fire Station during the three-hour long open house. Many folks brought gifts, and everyone stopped by to say hello to Manson, sign a birthday T-shirt, and admire the banner that outlined other important events that happened during 1916 – like the opening of the first self-service grocery store or the invention of the hamburger bun.
The idea for the party began in October, when Kristy was asked what the plans were by Manson’s granddaughter in California. At the time, says Kristy, the original idea was to keep it small as Manson didn’t want a big party, but when it was discussed again in December, he started to warm to the idea.
“He had a lot more enthusiasm and wanted to invite more people, and, well, one thing led to another,” she said.
And did it ever.
Word spread through social media, the local church bulletin, and Kinnakeet’s most reliable source of information – plain, old word of mouth. Manson even personally got involved with the attendee list, ensuring that folks knew they were invited.
“Last time I was down in Avon, there were a few people he wanted to invite, and we drove around to a few houses, knocked on a few doors, and made sure they were asked to come – it was really sweet,” said Kristy.
And the end result was pretty outs tanding.
The party vibe was a mixture of a family reunion and a town-wide tribute, which was not a surprising combination, considering Manson’s Avon roots and his distinguished career in the Coast Guard.
During his tenure in service, Manson served the country throughout the entirety of World War II, and was stationed in Tokyo Bay during the signing of the armistice. He also served a number of key roles in the Coast Guard, and was a teacher at the Coast Guard Academy, a sharp shooter, a trainer for the CIA, and a recruiter, according to friends and family members who were happy to share his contributions.
“He tried to recruit every date that his daughter, Kathy, brought home,” said his niece, Carol, with a laugh. “He’d sitManson Meekins with his wife, Vera. Manson turned 100 years old on Thursday, Feb. 18.
them down and ask ‘Have you ever thought about joining the Coast Guard?’”
“I was already in the Army, so he didn’t have a chance with me,” added John, Kathy’s husband.
Veritably everyone at the party had a story about Manson and his historic career, or just the good he did for the village. Though most people noted he didn’t like to “talk about the war,” everyone agreed he was a hero, and all were ready to share a story or two ab out his decades of service.
His nephew, Wayne Gray, who was also in the Coast Guard for 33 years, summed up the phenomenon. “He’s one of the most respected people on the island, and he was that way in the Coast Guard too.”
“He does not brag on himself, so we’re bragging for him,” said Carol.
One of the highlights of the afternoon, in fact, was the arrival of eight current Coast Guard personnel, dressed in uniform, who came by to honor Manson and present him with the Station Hatteras Inlet Challenge Coin – an honor token that’s passed to Coast Guard personnel who are worthy of recognition or have passed a milestone, like a 100th birthday. Manson had clearly achieved both.
After the presentation by Petty Officer First Class Tim Burns, the current and past Coast Guard members in the room — and there were quite a few — stood together and sang “Semper Paratus,”– the Coast Guard anthem.
There were very few dry eyes in the room after the rendition.
Throughout the afternoon, food also played a big role in the celebration, and banquet tables were crowded with some of Manson’s favorite dishes, which were provided by Ketch 55. Party-goers feasted on big plates of shrimp, beef and pie bread, rutabaga, green beans, potato salad, and rockfish – which added a nice dose of local flavor to the party.
There was also a cake, of course, which was a 12-layer yellow cake with chocolate icing – Manson’s favorite – and the whole room joined in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” as Manson blew out the three “1-0-0” candles.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cake with ‘100’ on it before,” noted a party-goer, admiring the concoction.
In the end, it was a celebration worthy of a local icon who, over the course of a century, has done so much for his family, the village, and the country, in general.
Not too formal and with lots of hugs and handshakes to go around as attendees recognized relatives and old friends, the party was a fine representation of Kinnakeet at its best.
“People really take care of each other down here, and you can tell there’s a lot of love in this room,” said his daughter Kathy. “Dad used to bring fish, ducks, and food to folks around the village, and now, people from all over the island come to him with fish, clams, and vegetables – it’s really amazing, and I’m so grateful.”
And when asked if she was surprised by the amount of people who came to celebrate her dad, Kathy smiled, shook her head, and simply stated the obvious.