Last month, Poway, California, said goodbye in grand and patriotic fashion to its most famous citizen, Ray Chavez, who until his death Nov. 21 at age 106, was the nation’s oldest surviving Pearl Harbor veteran.
After a 90-minute funeral Mass on Dec. 13 at St. Michael’s Catholic Church on Pomerado Road, the funeral cortège led by dozens of motorcycles rolled slowly underneath an enormous American flag hanging from a Poway Fire ladder truck and past hundreds of Poway schoolchildren waving miniature flags.
There were also scattered groups of Poway residents waving flags and handmade signs on street corners along the way toward Interstate 15.
Chavez’s daughter and longtime caretaker, Kathleen Chavez, said after the service that her quiet and humble dad would have been overwhelmed by the day’s events, which concluded with a burial with full military honors at Miramar National Cemetery.
“He would’ve looked around at all of this and said, ‘I don’t know why they’re making such a big fuss over me,’ ” she said.
Raymond Barron Chavez surged into national prominence three years ago when fellow Pearl Harbor veterans recognized him as the oldest survivor of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack that ushered the United States into World War II. Over the course of the war, Chavez took part in eight major Naval battles and rose to the rank of chief quartermaster.
Because of his senior position among Pearl Harbor vets, Chavez was a frequent guest at commemorative events around the country, including annual trips to the memorials at Pearl Harbor and a visit to the White House last Memorial Day weekend.
Until his health declined in recent months, Kathleen Chavez said she and her father had been planning to fly to Oahu to attend the 77th Pearl Harbor commemoration.
The December funeral Mass was led by the Rev. Mel Monreal, who told those gathered that Chavez never missed Sunday services unless he was ill or traveling to a Pearl Harbor event.
“Whenever we talked about it, [he said] he was there at the right time in a very important moment in history,” Monreal said. “He was ready to die for our country, but not only that, he lived for our country.”
The service was preceded by a pair of eulogies by Chavez’s nephew, Denny Specht, and Chavez’s personal trainer, Sean Thompson.
Thompson helped Chavez recover his health through twice-weekly workouts five years ago, and they became the unlikeliest of best friends. Thompson, who is in his 30s, said Chavez became his idol and moral compass in life.
“You never know when someone will come into your life and change it for the better. He meant the world to me,” Thompson said after the service.
Specht told the crowd that Chavez and his late wife, Margaret, took him in as a boy and raised him into adulthood. He described Chavez as a smart and silent man who taught by example how to work hard, be a man and do things right.
After the war, Chavez bought a home in Pacific Beach for his family, which included daughter Peggy, and he started a gardening business. It was a good life until Thanksgiving night 1956, when Peggy, her husband and their toddler daughter died in a car accident. To help ease their grief in 1957, the Chavezes adopted 5-year-old Kathleen, who followed her dad into the Navy and served for nearly 20 years.
Kathleen Chavez attended the service in her Navy dress-white uniform, one of many traditional military elements of the service. There were honor and color guard presentations, a Navy hymn, a flag-folding ceremony, a bagpiper and the funeral escort by the Patriot Guard Riders, a volunteer corps of motorcyclists who honor fallen service members.
Before the service, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer read a dedication marking Dec. 13 as Ray Chavez Day, describing Chavez as “a true patriot who protected our nation.”
At the burial service, Chavez was honored with a 21-gun salute, “Taps,” readings of letters from politicians, a performance by the San Diego Law Enforcement Emerald Society Drum and Pipes brigade, songs and prayers.
Father Monreal said that Chavez often reminded him of Mother Teresa, the late Indian-Albanian nun who was canonized by the church in 2016 as St. Teresa of Calcutta.
“Like her, Ray spent his life doing extraordinary things in an ordinary way,” Monreal said. “God has already cut out for him his next line of duty.”