Navy electrician and son of a Prohibition whiskey maker, Mystic man looks back on a wild ride

Bill Jennings sits by a Christmas tree at the Academy Point retirement home in Mystic. (Lee Howard/The Day)
Bill Jennings sits by a Christmas tree at the Academy Point retirement home in Mystic. (Lee Howard/The Day)

Mystic — Bill Jennings once shook the hand of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, helped his dad in a bootlegging operation, has been married to the same woman for 74 years and, perhaps the most surprising, accidentally found his long-lost mother on a trip to California.

"I've lived a good life," said Jennings, 97, who was born Frank Charles Miller in Huntington Beach, Calif., and went on to a long career at Electric Boat, heading up the purchasing department.

Jennings, who now lives at the retirement facility Academy Point, was taken away from his parents at a young age after his dad was caught illegally selling alcohol during Prohibition. But he still remembers tagging along with his father as he lit the gas lights on Huntington Beach, a job that eventually dried up when electricity came along.

He recalls scaling a fence with his brother to steal iron from a junkyard, then selling the metal back to the owner for a few cents that could be used to pay for a black-and-white film at the local movie house.

Jennings' father tried farming for a time, but hard times in the late 1920s after the stock market crash forced him to find work in the oil fields, necessitating the family's move to Costa Mesa, Calif.

To make a little extra money, Jennings' father opened a still in the chicken coop, delivering whiskey out of a Ford Model A during nighttime runs when Bill was perhaps 8 or 9 years old and his brother Earl a few years older.

The boys would be instructed to ditch gallon jugs out the car windows if there were ever trouble from the police. As Jennings recalled in a Day column in 2002, "We'd ride with him, holding jugs of white lightning in our laps. We'd be running along the highway. He'd say, 'If I tell you to throw it, you throw it. Don't ask questions.'"

One day, his father was caught and sent to San Quentin, while his mom didn't have enough income to support the family. Named wards of the state, the children were scattered, some living with relatives and the rest, including Bill, sent to a children's home in Los Angeles, where he was shipped out to various people until finally finding a school teacher from Glendale who adopted him.

"My adopted mother is the one who should get all the credit for the way I am today," he said.

But Jennings, who by then had taken his adopted father's family name, always wondered what happened to his birth parents, as well as three siblings. So, sometime in the late 1930s, he set about trying to track them down, quickly locating his father, who was by then a baker working in Los Angeles.

He also found his mother, thanks to a "weird coincidence." He had been in Glendale for some motorboat races when a stranger invited him to stop by afterward for some fried chicken that his housekeeper would make.

The housekeeper turned out to be Jennings' mother.

"We had a reunion right there," he said. "It had been five or 10 years I hadn't seen her, since I'd been adopted."

He also found two of his three siblings, though his younger brother could not be located. Rumor had it he might have died in the Korean War, but Jennings has never had confirmation.

He enlisted in the Navy during World War II, going to sea as a third-class electrician and visiting such far-off places as Australia, Pago Pago and New Guinea. Having fallen in love with his New York-bred eventual wife, Ellen, while in electrical school in Kentucky, he started angling to be stationed on the East Coast and was assigned to the submarine base in Groton.

Soon married, he used the GI Bill to become a certified accountant, working for Western Electric, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and at Fidelity in New York before moving back to California, settling in San Diego. Again, it was Jennings' restless spirit that made him want to move back home.

"What do you say we pick up and move to California," he recalls telling his wife.

"Sure, let's go," he remembers her replying.

Jennings had no job lined up, but his adopted mom suggested a contact who might have something at General Dynamics, so he bugged him till he had a job in inventory control.

"I was very lucky," he said.

Not long afterward, however, he started hearing about the Minuteman missile program replacing Atlas missiles being manufactured by General Dynamics, so he figured there would be layoffs and sought a transfer to Electric Boat.

"I like to eat," he said with a smile.

He also likes to recount the old days, like the time when he shook the hand of FDR while he was seeking the presidency during a whistle-stop campaign tour in Pasadena, Calif. Jennings is unsure of the year, but he recalls vividly being lifted up on his adopted father's shoulders to shake the hand of the future president.

"He was standing basically in the train car," Jennings said. "I reached up and shook his hand."

For a kid left without a family and a father in jail at a very early age, it could have been worse.

"I've had a very interesting life," Jennings smiled.

l.howard@theday.com

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