GRAY- When Rear Adm. Willard Merton Sweetser died Friday at the age of 105, he had only been at the Maine Veterans’ Home in Paris a short time. The man who was the oldest living alumnus of the U.S. Naval Academy until his death had lived and been active in his hometown of Gray for many years after his retirement from teaching and the Navy.

“He was very independent,” said his caretaker, Elaine Verrill, 70, of New Goucester, who for the past 23 years, steadfastly served Sweetser seven days a week, with little time off, as a companion and caregiver.

“When he turned 100, he made a conscious decision not to drive his automobile again. He put his license in a drawer,” she said, and that was the end of driving.

Verrill said Sweetser had only moved into the Veterans’ Home shortly before Thanksgiving.

Growing up in Gray, Sweetser graduated from Pennell Institute before attending the U.S, Naval Academy, where he graduated in 1926.

On Saturday by telephone, Verrill talked about her many years helping the Sweetster family, first caring for his wife, who died after three years, and then as a companion helper to Sweetster. In the early years, she ran errands, paid bills and in recent years, prepared lunch, read the paper aloud and listened to the admiral recite poetry and tell occasional stories about past experiences and adventures in his life far from Gray.

Verrill, who raised six children with her husband, Willard, says she will miss her commander. “He was a very private person and didn’t share much with anyone. My father grew up with him in Gray and my father knew him well. He used to see me when I worked at the laundromat in Gray.” When asked how she came to work for the Sweetsters, Verrill said, “He plucked me out of nowhere.”

“I took care of the house, I didn’t have to clean or do laundry, but I cooked and ran errands, paid bills and was a companion, she said.”

A master at serving others, Verrill for the past 32 years has been a volunteer member of the New Gloucester Rescue Unit, now holding the rank of senior lieutenant.

An expert on Gray

Though Adm. Sweetster never climbed the stairs to see the collection of the Gray Historical Society at Pennell Institute, he was a special friend and expert to Gray’s past.

“I felt honored to meet him, ” said Louise Knapp, president of the Gray Historical Society.

In 1978, Sweetster and Robert T. HIll of Gray co-authored “The History, Records and Recollection of Gray, Maine, Volume I.” Knapp calls that book “The Bible of Gray.”

Fifty copies of the book were initially published in 1978, and in the 1990s Sweetster made a generous donation to the Gray Historical Society to print an additional 200 copies of the book , which spans from 1735 to WW II in 411 pages.

“Mr. Hill collected people’s information, and Admiral Sweetster was interested in Gray and both were neighbors. So the pair came together naturally to write the book, collaboratively, Knapp said.

Sweetser made efforts to get her to write Volume 2, but Knapp, declined insisting that the information on Gray would be accessible to another author.

“For a man that age, he had a very good life,” says Knapp. And, Elaine Verrill agreed. “He lived a full life.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.