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‘May the party continue’: La Jolla centenarian and world traveler Max Gurney is celebrated by local Rotarians

Max Gurney holds a gift bottle of wine at a celebration of his 100th birthday on June 30 atop Mount Soledad.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Whether it’s his because of service with the military or the Rotary Club, advice for international travel or sharing a good glass of Burgundy wine, La Jollan Max Gurney is a good man to know.

Though the centenarian celebrated his actual 100th birthday overseas, a lunch was held in La Jolla in his honor June 30, at which loved ones shared stories of the many facets of his life.

Gurney was born in Frankfurt, Germany, on June 10, 1921, but moved to Manhattan as a child. Already a multilinguist at age 20, he joined the Army and was trained in cryptographic and intelligence operations and the Signal Intelligence Service and was stationed in North Africa.

During his years in the military, Gurney traveled to Tunisia, Italy and more. He received his honorable discharge from the Army in November 1945. His travels continued as an employee of Pan Am, a career that spanned 45 years, during which he was everything from a baggage clerk to a regional executive.

His assignments took him to Senegal, Egypt, Lebanon, the Bahamas, Norway and more. He finally served as district operations manager for southern France and Monaco.

In Monaco he developed a friendship with Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace (former actress Grace Kelly). When Gurney moved to La Jolla in 1992, Rainier appointed him honorary consul for the principality of Monaco. Last month, Gurney was honored on his 100th birthday with a luncheon hosted by Rainier’s son, Prince Albert, in Monaco.

By Gurney’s side for many of these travels was his wife, Kay, to whom he was married for 54 years before her death in 2005. The two married in Italy, and actor Rex Harrison was a witness at the wedding.

Gurney is recognized as a commander in the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a wine society dedicated to appreciation of Burgundy wine, and has been designated as a grand commander in the Order of Scotch Whisky Tasters.

As a lover of wine, he helped establish the Torrey Pines Rotary Club’s reputation as the “wine club” when he joined in 1992. Gurney was honored as Rotarian of the Year in 2009 and still attends meetings.

About 30 Rotarians celebrated Gurney’s 100th birthday atop Mount Soledad on June 30. Many of the stories they shared included the words “thank you.”

Torrey Pines Rotarian Bill Irwin thanked him because “Max changed my life,” he said. “I was a happy-go-lucky guy drinking beer and Max told me I need to drink wine and join a group called In Vino Veritas (Latin for “In wine, there is truth”). Through [that group] I traveled to Europe … and one time when we were with Max in Monaco, someone yelled ‘Max!’ and talked to him for a bit. My wife asked who that was and Max said, ‘I have no idea.’ It proved everybody knows Max!”

A speaker who referred to herself as "Pam from Pan Am" speaks about Max Gurney.
A speaker who referred to herself as “Pam from Pan Am” speaks about how Max Gurney was the go-to man for international restaurant suggestions among Pan Am flight attendants.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Jokingly calling Gurney “Mr. Humble” with a great sense of humor, Irwin said he greeted Gurney with “Bon anniversaire” (“Happy birthday” in French) and Gurney responded with “Marcy bow-cups,” a playful butchering of the French phrase “Merci beaucoup,” meaning “Thank you very much.”

Rotarian Phillippe Lamoise noted that his path to the Rotary went through Gurney. “I went to a meeting with my father, who was a Rotarian in France and only spoke French, to help translate. We saw Max and realized he spoke perfect French, so I wasn’t needed! I later joined the Rotary, and even though Max was not my sponsor to get me to join the Rotary, he is my sponsor at heart. I joined because of him.”

Over the past 25 years, Lamoise would travel to Europe with Gurney and other members of In Vino Veritas and have the tradition of signing menus to commemorate particular meals. “I wrote on yours and you wrote on mine,” he said to Gurney, who was sitting a few feet away. “You wrote, ‘Que la fête commence,’ which means ‘May the party start.’ And the next time we had to do it, we were going to write the same thing, but I realized the party never ended, so you wrote ‘Que la fête continue’ (‘May the party continue’).”

Others shared that Gurney helped them get into restaurants in Europe, that he would have the last drink at a bar, and that Pan Am flight attendants “all have a Max story.”

He doesn’t, however, have a story for his longevity.

“There’s no secret,” he told the La Jolla Light. “The lessons I’ve had in my life started with my mother; she was a wonderful mirror to look into. Even in the worst conditions, she was always optimistic. So I had the same approach my whole life. I like to be positive.”

Guided by spiritual principles as a lifelong Catholic, “I used to pray a lot during wartime,” he said. “When the war was over, I admit I prayed less, but now I’m praying again. Spirit is important. Religion is such a personal thing and important. I pray for others as well as myself.”

Gurney thinks his drive to travel is fueled by curiosity. “It’s in the spirit of our country that people like to move around,” he said. “I think it also speaks to the curiosity we have as people. It can also connect the world when people travel. I think travel is important.”

In October, Gurney is scheduled for a trip he has never taken before: an Honor Flight, which takes veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit seven war memorials. He’s looking forward to it. ◆