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Bellingham WWII veteran, author and ukulele player turns 100

Burl Harmon celebrated alongside fellow musicians at the Bellingham Senior Center

Patrice Clark, left, and Burl Harmon play ukulele together with their club on Feb. 29 at the Bellingham Senior Center. Harmon recently celebrated his 100th birthday. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Cocoa Laney Lifestyle Editor

Burl Harmon turned 100 on Feb. 22, and by all accounts, he’s spent these years living life to the fullest. The Bellingham local is not just a centenarian but an author, World War II veteran, father, teacher and beloved community volunteer — although folks at the Bellingham Senior Center (BSAC) know him best for his ukulele chops.

Harmon celebrated his birthday alongside BSAC’s ukulele group, who marked the occasion with a surprise party. Their usual weekly meetup was made special with cake, kazoos and even a poem in Harmon’s honor: “He’s a singer of songs / He’s a strummer of strings / And nobody calls Burl shy / He’s 100 and counting, so, we make a toast / Here’s to breaking a record, big guy.”

From left, Linda Heyne, Mary Varco and Patrice Clark play the kazoo to the tune of “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” as others play ukulele. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

This lifelong passion for music began in childhood; born and raised in Boone, Iowa, Harmon grew up singing in church choirs and barbershop quartets. But life changed drastically when he was drafted for World War II in 1943 and wound up as a flight engineer on a B-24 Liberator Bomber. From March to October 1944, Harmon would lead 38 combat missions — 20 of which were dangerous enough to be counted as two missions. Simultaneously, he gained a reputation among other soldiers for carrying a guitar on his back.

After finishing his tour of duty, Harmon got a job with Kansas City schools developing pilot programs for high school dropouts and students at risk of expulsion. After retiring in 1989, he eventually moved to Bellingham and met Nanette Davis, his now-wife of 20 years. Davis shares Harmon’s passion for music, and the duo perform ukulele together at assisted living centers.

From left, Patrice Clark, Burl Harmon and Nanette Davis celebrate Harmon’s 100th birthday at the Bellingham Senior Center. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

In retirement, Harmon volunteered with the Bellingham tourism bureau and Mount Baker Theatre for a decade. He even published a book about his time in the military, entitled “Combat Missions: Flying the B-24 Liberator Bomber Out of Manduria, Italy, 450th Bomb Group, 720th Squadron, WWII,” in November 2022. Harmon is also involved with the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Fairhaven and the Bellingham Ukulele Group (BUG).

But despite this extensive resume, Harmon said he wasn’t always so outgoing — even if his birthday poem implies otherwise.

“I was considered a troublemaker when I was in high school, but that was because I was so shy, I didn’t think I had any kind of voice,” he said. “And it turned out that the music teacher didn’t think so either.”

This teacher couldn’t have been more wrong: Harmon has a natural ear for melody and plays both ukulele and guitar (despite never learning to read music). Perhaps more importantly, he uses this gift as a foundation for community building.

The ukulele club at the Bellingham Senior Center plays together. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Harmon and Davis began frequenting the BSAC group a year ago with Patrice Clark, who provides rides for Harmon through Bellingham At Home. Clark was also taken by Harmon’s warmth, to the degree that she herself was inspired to take up the ukulele. 


“[Life] can be hard, and he talks about it,” Clark said. “But he doesn’t stay lost in it, not even when he’s in the hospital.” 

In 2023, Harmon suffered a fall that forced him to recuperate in two separate assisted living facilities — but during his stay, Clark said Harmon “made the whole hallway smile.”

“Burl is a happy man,” Davis added. “He’s always been, ever since I’ve met him.” Davis was previously married, and when her late husband passed, Davis said she thought it was the end of her life — but then Harmon came along. Ever since then, she said, “we’ve just been having a barrel of laughs.”

And while much of Harmon’s happiness is intrinsic, Davis suspects music also plays a role. Throughout his 100 years, Harmon said the people he surrounds himself with — especially later in life — have brought him the most joy. 

It’s no coincidence that many of these connections came from music. Take Harmon’s 100th birthday party, for example: “That room was full of people that are just wonderful, who’ve embraced the same ideas, the same values,” he said. “That allows us to accumulate relationships that are lasting.”

 A previous version of this story misstated the instrument the group was playing in the caption of a photo. They are playing ukuleles. This story was updated to reflect this change on Friday, March 15 at 8:40 a.m. Cascadia Daily News regrets the error.

Cocoa Laney is CDN’s lifestyle editor; reach her at cocoalaney@cascadiadaily.com; 360-922-3090 ext. 128.

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