A stroke in 2008 and a broken hip put Merced resident Pete Komlenich in a wheelchair, but it didn’t stop the 100-year-old from heading to the voting booth on election day, a task he has dutifully completed since the age of 21.
Komlenich has never missed an election in his life, but Tuesday was extra special for the 30-year Air Force veteran. He voted for the first time with his great-grandson, who just turned 18.
“It was hard keeping the tears back,” said Komlenich’s youngest daughter, Micki Rucker, who drove her father to his polling place. “He still thinks he needs to give something back and I think that’s very important for young people to think about.”
Komlenich said he votes because he wants to be able to make a difference in his local government.
“I want to make my country free,” Komlenich said. “I think I inspire others.”
Fighting in World War II, his plane was shot down in December 1943. He was held as a prisoner of war in Germany for 18 months. He was nicknamed the “Silver Fox” because of his silver hair.
“I lost a lot of weight,” Komlenich said, adding he got down to 90 pounds.
Rucker said her father always believed that voting is not a right, it’s a privilege.
“The reason we’re able to do what we do is because of people like my dad,” Rucker said. “It’s a privilege to vote and that’s the way my dad has always felt.”
Komlenich’s great-grandson, Reece Williams, called him a “role model” and said voting with Komlenich was an experience he will never forget.
“It was a little bit nerve-racking at first because I had actually never voted before,” Williams said. “But I’m probably going to remember that for the rest of my life.”
Williams, who graduated from Golden Valley High School, said he plans to follow in his great-grandfather’s footsteps by voting every Election Day for the rest of his life.
“I definitely think it makes a difference, because if no one voted we really wouldn’t get anything done,” Williams said.
Although Komlenich could have filled out his ballot by mail, he wanted to go into the polling place, the same one he’s gone to for years. He was greeted by a slew of familiar faces.
“There were people that were at the polling place that recognized him,” Rucker said. “To me, he’s an amazing human being. When I see some of these people that just shrug off voting, I look at somebody like my dad and I hope it sends a good message.”
Merced County Registrar of Voters Barbara Levey said the turnout at this year’s primary election was disappointing, but hearing stories about voters like Komlenich is inspiring.
“I do think it’s wonderful that he does take his civic duties so responsibly,” Levey said. “To have folks like him put the energy into getting there, I think it’s a great example. It is a tremendous opportunity for all of us and a nice example that he sets for the next generation.”
When asked if he will continue to vote, Komlenich said he will do his best.
“I will see about that,” Komlenich said, “as long as I can.”