The man known as the nation's oldest veteran was eulogized yesterday in the small wood-paneled chapel of a funeral home on 14th Street NW in a ceremony that mixed humbleness with grand gestures.
George E. Echols, 105, died Thursday at the Veterans Administration Medical Center nursing home in Northwest Washington.
In his last days, he enjoyed pushing a friend around in a wheelchair, feeding hot dogs and hamburgers to the pigeons and attending Sunday services at the center. He was easily spotted in his layers of clothing: denim bibbed overalls, blue insulated vest and thermal underwear. Echols told doctors and nurses respectfully that he thought more of his home remedies than of the medicine they offered.
"He was well versed on any subject and could talk to you about local or national events," recalled Jay Boone of the National Veterans of Foreign Wars. "If the subject was the Lord, you could sit awhile."
The W.H. Bacon Funeral Home was packed with relatives, doctors, nurses and friends. The Purple Cross nurses Unit 422 of the Improved Benevolent, Protective Order of the Elks of the World sat in starched white suits and hats.
The VFW National Honor Guard members marched up to the flag-draped coffin. One by one, they clicked their heels and saluted. A member played a soft, muffled taps.
A letter from Edward J. Derwinski, secretary of veterans affairs, called Echols a "remarkable man" whose life showed "patriotic service to our country; middle years of happy and productive work; and later days filled with the peace that comes from the knowledge that you have given your best."
Echols could have been buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. He requested instead to be buried in Athens, Ga., his home town, said Lula Tyler, who as public affairs specialist at the VA Medical Center came to know Echols as a friend.
He was born on Nov. 2, 1884, and moved to the District at an early age.
Echols served two stints in the Army. He was drafted the first time, and served five years. He reenlisted for a year and received an honorable discharge. During World War I, he served in France.
Returning to Washington after the Army, Echols worked as a railroad porter and later in several housekeeping jobs. For more than 50 years, Echols and his wife, Mary N. Reid, sold Florida oranges and Georgia pecans at their stand at the Farmers' Union Terminal Market. She died in 1977.
He was still working at age 105, but this time at a work therapy program in the VA Medical Center, where he would spend an hour or two packaging handcrafted items.
"He said hard, honest work would keep you healthy," his stepdaughter, Annie Kent, recalled.
George Lively, Echols's friend and resident of the nursing home, said, "He was one of the best friends I ever had. You should have seen him pushing the wheelchair with me in it. Him, at his age," said Lively, laughing and crying. "He sure was an inspiration to me. Oh, he was a great man."