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Jim Jones' Eastword column: Mary Bilkie finds purpose in helping veterans, kids

Maybe opposites attract.

Larry Bilkie was quiet and reserved.

Even more so after serving as a field artilleryman with the U.S. Army during the Korean War.

Larry Bilkie came home changed by Korea, and it wasn't just the ringing in his ears and the hearing loss caused by firing howitzers.

He was changed by the horrors that he saw.

His wife, Mary, was sunny, gregarious and charming.

And yes, they were the perfect couple.

"They were inseparable," says their son David Bilkie of Palmetto.

They were married in 1952. She was a stay-at-home mom, who went back to school at age 42 and became a licensed practical nurse.

He spent his working career at the General Motors' Fisher Body plant in Tecumseh, Mich.

The couple went to all of their son's high school sports events, and provided a loving home for him.

The day Larry Bilkie retired 25 years ago, they moved to Florida.

Three years ago, Larry Bilkie passed away at age 77. If he had lived, the couple would have celebrated their 60th anniversary this year.

"He was the love of my life," Mary Bilkie said last week from her Lakewood Ranch home.

A cancer survivor, Mary has since immersed herself in volunteer work with Lakewood Ranch-Sarasota Elks Lodge 2855, focusing on helping veterans and children.

"Larry was an American, through and through. Since he was a Korean War veteran and we were married for so many years, I wanted to do something for the veterans. I do this in his name. Helping veterans and helping children is what the Elks are all about," Mary Bilkie said.

While Mary Bilkie sparkles, she is also a humble person who seems almost embarrassed that she was recently named Elks Southwest Florida veterans volunteer of the year.

"I didn't expect it. There are a lot more people out there who do more," she said.

Jim Lamb, Elks district deputy grand exalted ruler, said Mary Bilkie is well deserving of her award, and that she was selected by a group of Elks who regularly help veterans.

Not only is Mary Bilkie a regular at Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, helping provide lap robes, barbecues and more, but she works to aid deployed service members, and takes part in many other activities to benefit veterans, Lamb said.

"Mary is a very loving, personable person, and very involved in the veterans community. We are proud to know her and it is members like her that make the Elks as strong as they are," Lamb said.

Mary Bilkie says the volunteer service helps give her life purpose and an incomparable feeling that comes from helping others.

"We are taking a little more interest in the veterans coming home," she says of the change in a country's attitude to its service members.

"Larry was on the front lines in Korea. He talked about it very little. They were memories that he wanted to forget. My husband would open up only now and then. They were horror stories that you wouldn't want to rehash. But he was proud of his service," she said.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1