East Texas resident Jack Hetzel has done a lot in his nearly 100 years — served in five major World War II campaigns, met presidents, written books and preached hundreds of sermons — and he said he owes it all to his savior.
“I believe I’m going to go to 112 (years old), but I’m ready to go anytime,” he said this week. “God has been so good to me to live 100 years.”
Hetzel, pastor at Big Sandy United Methodist Church for about the past seven years, will reach his 100-year anniversary of life on Nov. 18. He said he is looking forward to his centennial and he expects to feel great.
His eldest granddaughter organized an early celebration Saturday at the Big Sandy Civic Center, where an estimated 140 people honored Hetzel.
“I’ve had the privilege of attending birthday parties of high-profile people. Those were, shall I say, a silhouette of what I had Saturday,” he said.
Hetzel’s family tree includes a son and daughter, four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and nine great-great-grandchildren. His first wife Lilian, a native of England, died years ago. The couple also had a 6-year-old son who died in a wreck.
Longevity runs in Hetzel’s family. His mother Nettie lived to be 104 years old, and he said she was known for saying what was on her mind.
Hetzel lives in Big Sandy with his second wife, Patsy, who is 88. The pair have been married over 10 years, and he often asks people to introduce him as “Pat’s husband.”
“I needed to marry a younger woman to keep up with me,” he said.
Hetzel’s 20-year military service began in World War II as a private in the Army Air Corps. He started in England and his unit traveled to Normandy just after D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the Allied forces invaded northern France by landing on the beaches.
He recalled being a 150-pound, wiry young man in the service.
His unit provided air cover for Army General George S. Patton. Hetzel was a part of five major battles in the war in Europe with the Battle of the Bulge being his last.
“We were way down in the Czech border when we heard we were no longer in war,” Hetzel said. “The last aircraft surrendered to my unit.”
Hetzel reenlisted into the Air Corps in 1946, but he found a school he wanted to be a part of in the Army. He took typing two hours a day and later ended up teaching administration classes.
Hetzel spent the last 14 years of his military service in the Army. He recalled preaching three sermons a week during that time and said he often preached in place of the chaplains.
“After being in the military, I finally agreed with God that it was time for me to preach,” Hetzel said.
He served at many churches before coming to Big Sandy United Methodist just shy of his 94th birthday.
“If God puts something into a person, why would you retire from it? I don’t minister; I am a minister. I don’t like to vacate. I like to do what I’m doing,” he said.
Despite his current church’s small congregation, he reaches thousands of people through Facebook and through his daily emailed devotional messages.
He preaches at 9 a.m. on Sundays. He and Patsy head over to another church to attend that service to learn about other people.
“How I am going to learn about other people if I don’t associate with them? I do this to learn,” Hetzel said.
He’s authored eight books with two more soon going to print, and he’s hugged Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He even told the elder Bush he would be president one day as Bush ran for U.S. Senate in 1964.
“You may not be senator, but you will be president of the United States,” Hetzel said. “He was the best-equipped man to be president.”
Hetzel said he and his wife were very close with President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush.
Several years ago, Hetzel traveled with other veterans as a part of the Brookshire’s and Super 1 Foods Heroes Flight to Washington D.C. As the group made the rounds to various landmarks, Hetzel said people wanted to talk to or take a photo with him at every stop.
Across the decades of his life, Hetzel has associated with people like four-star generals, and he’s enjoyed being able to communicate with anyone.
“I like the idea that it doesn’t matter what a person’s level is in life, I can converse with (them) on a sensible basis,” he said.
He’s also known for hardly ever saying a negative word.
“I’d rather give some reasons to get it right than talk about what’s wrong,” Hetzel said. “If we talk about our sickness or somebody’s sickness, the body starts to develop that in our life.”
Hetzel is also a big proponent of not giving up, noting the examples of Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers who, despite many attempts, kept going until they found success.
“They wouldn’t give up until they accomplished it,” he said. “I say erase every ‘can’t’ in your life.”
He referenced Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.”
And the nearly 100-year-old man said he has some goals he would yet like to accomplish to help Big Sandy and its residents. He wants to see a Whataburger come to the area and a place that serves breakfast around the clock.
“I want these things not just for me, but for the town,” he said.