“Everything that happened to me in my life is fate. No planning. No planning,” Merle McLaren said in a soft voice.
Fate must have been kind to McLaren, 89. Starting in the depths of poverty in Illinois, McLaren had a military career that included two wars, then took over a Hays car dealership he ran for about 20 years.
And yet, he remains humble, even after learning last week he will be the recipient of the 2018 Wild West Festival All American Citizen Award. The honor will be presented to McLaren on the festival stage at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.
“If I had any success in life, it’s due to the love of my life — my wife — and the good Lord,” he said Thursday, seated on a soft leather couch in the living room of his Ash Street home.
Wife Betty, seated in a recliner nearby, points out that most everything in the home, especially the art, was selected by Merle. He also does most of the work around the house, she said.
“I get to do dusting and laundry. Two after 12 is nothing,” she said, referring to the couple and the 10 children they raised.
“But I don’t do too good at the dusting,” she said with a laugh.
“I’m always working around the house or building something. I still do everything myself. I’ll be 90 in December. I’m pretty fortunate,” Merle said.
It didn’t always seem that way.
McLaren was one of nine children in his family, growing up in the Great Depression. He said he developed a “chip on his shoulder.”
“We were pretty poor and nobody better talk to me,” he said.
His father died when McLaren was 10.
“He was buried on my birthday. And my mother was ill, chronically ill,” he said.
“We were always happy but we never had anything. Never had school supplies. It was pretty bad,” McLaren said.
He dropped out of school at 16 to work in a furniture factory. His older brothers had all left home and had families of their own.
“There was myself, my mother and three little sisters,” he said.
He worked in the factory for six years, earning $1.65 an hour, lifting furniture all day.
The Korean War was underway, but McLaren stayed off the draft list because he was the family’s only income.
“I wanted to get away really bad, no matter what. I wanted to go, but I knew I couldn’t leave them,” he said.
The military wasn’t able to get enough draftees to send to Korea, so sought volunteers by starting the Class Q Allotment, which allowed an amount of the serviceman’s paycheck to be sent directly to dependents.
“When they came out with that, I told my mom ‘This is going to give you pretty close to what I brung in, and I want to leave,’ ” he said.
She didn’t argue, and McLaren went to the post office, where the Marine recruiter’s office was.
“I thought I was tough and had to be a Marine,” he said.
Fate stepped in that day. A snowstorm had kept the Marine recruiter in Chicago. But an Air Force recruiter was in his office.
“The Air Force sent me to all kinds of schools. I got an education I hadn’t gotten before,” McLaren said.
It also sent him around the world. During more than 20 years of service in communications, he served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, and was stationed in Germany twice, France and Turkey, as well as several stateside bases.
One of those early assignments was at McConnel Air Force Base in Wichita, where he met Betty.
“I told him God had to work hard to get us together. If he had got in the Marines, we would have never met,” Betty said.
“I probably would have been killed in Korea because they were being slaughtered,” McLaren said.
McLaren retired from the Air Force in 1973, and he and Betty and their children moved to Hays. Betty grew up in WaKeeney, and McLaren wanted to get a degree. He studied political science at Fort Hays State University, graduating with honors.
McLaren was contemplating going into civil service and returning to Germany when fate stepped in again. Stan Dreiling, who managed James Motor Co., showed up at his doorstep with a job offer. The company’s owner, Steve Pratt, had sent him.
“I think I purchased a car from them, and he asked me if I’d be willing to go to work for them downtown,” McLaren said.
“I hadn’t applied for nothing. When I met him, I must have impressed him,” McLaren said of Pratt.
He and Dreiling became close friends, and McLaren would eventually manage Pratt’s GMC truck dealership north of town. In 1979, Pratt sold the dealerships to each of the men.
It was Dreiling who got McLaren to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars Honor Guard about 15 years ago. He’s still active with the group and stood guard at a veteran’s funeral earlier this week.
In 1996, he sold McLaren Lincoln Mercury to Jim and Rod Lewis.
“I told my kids they’d probably fire them, because they think they were spoiled. They kept every one of them,” McLaren said.
To this day, two of his daughters are general managers for Lewis Automotive in Hays and Dodge City.
“Jim Lewis, the owner asked me ‘You got any more of those McLaren girls at home?’ ” he said with a laugh.
The McLarens had five boys and five girls — some of them born overseas. Two of their sons — Joel and Sean — died in 1997 and 2012, respectively. A portrait in pencil of the two of them hangs in the couple’s living room.
Merle and Betty have 14 grandchildren and their 16th great-grandchild is on the way.
“It’s been a good life for us. We’ve been very lucky,” McLaren said.
He was surprised to learn he would be named All American Citizen at this year’s Wild West Festival. His family took him to dinner to tell him last week. He’s humble about receiving the honor.
“A lot of people have accomplished a lot more than I have,” he said.