It’s been 80 years since Robley Rex served in the military, but he still lives like a man on a mission. The 102-year-old Rex — Kentucky’s oldest known veteran — spends his days at the VA Medical Center in Louisville, not as a patient but as a dedicated volunteer.
HIS FAILING EARS don’t hear the many “thanks” directed his way as he makes his way around the hospital aided by a walker. Still, he carries on.
On a recent Friday morning, Rex arrived at the medical center wearing a white shirt, trousers and his Veterans of Foreign Wars baseball cap covered with patriotic badges. His face had on a big smile.
Rex’s first stop was the laboratory, where he dropped off a sample. His next stop was the chart room. Then he headed off to the oncology department to deliver paperwork. Before he knew it, it was lunch time.
“His work ethic is incredible,” said medical center spokesman Vince Gayeski. “He’s an icon.”
That Friday morning is an example of how Rex spends three mornings each week. Since 1986 he has logged nearly 12,400 volunteer hours, said Mary Jane Crowder, acting chief of voluntary services.
“It makes for good interpersonal contact with the veterans who come here,” she said. “They have the ear of someone who understands what they’ve been through.”
Few from Rex’s generation remain. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates fewer than 200 World War I veterans nationwide are still living.
Rex actually entered the Army just after World War I, but he did spend time in France and Germany doing administrative work in an intelligence unit.
After leaving the Army in 1922, Rex made his living as a postal worker in Louisville. He and his late wife, Grace, had no children.
Rex never misses a monthly meeting of the Okolona VFW, quartermaster Bob Shader said. An ordained Methodist minister, Rex is the post’s chaplain. He also is a service officer, helping veterans and veterans’ widows with benefits paperwork.
“Anyone who brings a veterans matter to me,” Rex said, “I try to do something with it.”
Rex’s longtime involvement has made him fairly famous in veterans circles and beyond. He threw out the first pitch at a minor league baseball game in May. He said those who learn his history for the first time “just pat me on the back and say, ’That’s remarkable.”’
The work at the medical center — along with the attention he gets there — keeps Rex going, said Robert Keller, his driver and a Vietnam veteran.
For his birthday, Keller said, Rex was showered with kisses and food from nurses.
“This contributes to my well-being. If I miss a day, people will tell me they missed me,” Rex said. “I enjoy being alive.”
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