CRESTVIEW — Given a life full of achievements, William Oneby has earned the right to sit on his Crestview porch and rest on his laurels.
But the spry 90-year-old refuses to do that.
Instead, he sings karaoke four nights a week and has been perfecting his speech-making skills as he works toward the local Toastmasters Club’s next level.
Oneby turned 90 on April 20, Adolf Hitler's birthday, "But I outlived him," he said. "I turned 22 in Germany on his 56th birthday. Eight days later he committed suicide."
Friends at the American Legion threw Oneby a karaoke party and gave him a polo shirt emblazoned "chick magnet" on the back.
Oneby hits one of his four favorite local karaoke nightspots, including the Legion post and AmVets, about four nights a week. There, he entertains from a repertoire of 600 songs and not quite as many jokes.
Memories of war
His memories of World War II in Germany, including the time his sergeant saved his life, are still vivid.
Oneby was relaxing in the back of the radio repair van soon after his unit arrived in Germany in 1944. German gunfire set alight the gasoline tank wagon his vehicle was pulling.
"The only exit was out the back through the gasoline flames," Oneby said. "It was a giant Bunson burner from top to bottom. I heard my sergeant's voice, 'Stay in there, Oneby! That's an order!'"
Tech. Sgt. Frank Gregorin unhitched the tank wagon, which threatened to explode at any moment, and pushed it over a hill just before it blew sky high.
"He would accept nothing from me except a haircut” in gratitude, Oneby said.
Another time, he and a fellow radio technician were sent into the German town of Kolmar to repair a broken radio truck. In the confusion of a snowy day, the soldiers drove right through the town — and into the middle of a raging battle.
Zigzagging their way back through the gunfire, they found a bunker occupied by Americans. Oneby and his friend tumbled into safety.
"And then the big guns opened up," Oneby said. "I was a kid from Milwaukee. It looked like the Fourth of July. I was enjoying the show until somebody grabbed me and said, 'Get your head down, you idiot!'"
Injury and civilian life
After Germany surrendered, Oneby, following injury in a truck accident, recuperated in the same hospital where Gen. George Patton succumbed to wounds sustained in a car crash three days earlier.
Oneby came home and attended Marquette University, where he majored in electrical engineering and got a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory.
There he developed the concept of global positioning satellite technology, or GPS, and became project engineer for the study of the system.
He also conceived phased-array radar, which today is the main technology behind the U.S. Air Force's AWACS — airborne warning and control system — radar planes.
Oneby also worked for the Navy at the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center in the Bahamas, where he held a part-time job teaching oceanography.
"My wife said, 'What do you know about oceanography?'," Oneby said. "I said, 'I'm learning oceanography. I'm a month ahead of my students.'"
Chess master and Toastmaster
Oneby has been a Crestview resident for 35 years. He has delivered more than 30 Toastmasters speeches.
A rising chess champion as a teenager, he still enjoys the game, which he now often plays against his computer.
"I can beat the computer pretty easily if I play white, so now I play black and the computer beats me," Oneby said. "I discovered I have to learn all its nasty tricks."
He was first matched against a computer in a Florida state tournament.
"I said, 'I did not agree to play a computer,'" Oneby said. "They said, 'If you beat the computer you win $50 and I said, 'Oh.' And I beat the computer and they took me to dinner as well."
90 and counting
Upon turning 90, Oneby received several birthday cards, including one from President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.
Oneby is replying to all those who sent him greetings.
"Being 90 years old, I am always afraid I'm getting Alzheimer's, but then I remembered I had this problem when I was young," Oneby said, his eyes twinkling. "I was always forgetful."
Oneby then shared a joke.
"Before I sing a karaoke song I tell a short joke," he said. "Last week somebody stole the toilet from the Crestview Police Department. This week the police still have nothing to go on.
"You have to have a sense of humor in this life," he said.
Want to go?
The Crestview Toastmasters Club will honor William Oneby’s recent 90th birthday, along with his many accomplishments, at an open house 5:30-7 p.m. May 14 at the Holiday Inn Express, 125 Cracker Barrel Rd. For information call 974-3662. The public is invited.
Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.