SWAMPSCOTT --Antonio ''Tony" Pierro's smile is contagious, and his laugh seems to crackle with wisdom. If anyone could talk about the meaning of life, it would be Pierro. He was born before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, was a teenager when the Model T was produced, married soon after returning from World War I, and retired 30 years before anyone had heard of the Internet.
Pierro, who was born 110 years ago yesterday, explains his longevity in one word -- genetics. His parents lived to 90 and 91, and one of his grandfathers made it to 103. Three brothers lived past 80, and his youngest brother, Nicholas, turns 97 in April.
Besides good genes, Pierro said a strong will to live and common sense have kept him healthy all his life. Inside a two-story house on a wooded hillside in this seacoast town, Pierro spends much of his time thinking about the decisions he made, and he has concluded that life is a struggle between good and evil.
''It's all up to you to do what you want in life. There are pleasant things to do, and there are terrible things not to do, and that's the way I see it," said Pierro, who speaks slowly, and has a partial hearing loss.
At 5 feet, 120 pounds, Pierro shuffles through the house he shares with his brother Nicholas and Nicholas's son, Rick. Although he sleeps at least 16 hours a day, Pierro also stays active. He shovels snow, rakes leaves, and washes the dishes after every meal. ''If you don't have exercise, you get stiff, you're not worth anything," said Pierro, who often reads medical journals and the Bible.
Despite having eaten eggs, bacon, and red meat for at least 70 years and smoking until he was 60, Pierro has a normal cholesterol level and blood pressure. He takes no daily medication -- just a multivitamin. As a young adult, he began the practice of covering every scratch or bruise with a swab of iodine. And instead of gargling with Listerine, he took to drinking it every morning in the belief that it would make him healthier.
''The most important fact is his family history, which tells us that he has inherited very important genes," said Dr. L. Stephen Coles, who heads the Gerontology Research Group in Los Angeles, which has identified 66 of the oldest people in the world. All of the 66 are 110 or older, and 20 live in the United States. Coles intends to research Pierro's roots, and said he needs to see his birth certificate and a picture identification before placing him on his list, which currently includes no one from Massachusetts.
On Feb. 15, 1896, Pierro was born on his family's vineyard in Forenza, Italy, a mountaintop village southeast of Naples. With little income except for that derived from grapes from the vineyard, Pierro sought a better life and arrived in Boston in 1914. He soon found work in shoe shops and factories in Lynn, staying with cousins in Boston and Swampscott. ''You do things when you have to, and I had to," he said. ''I was in a strange country, strange language, and I had to learn the way the other people lived."
He entered the Army on Oct. 4, 1917, and served in Battery E, 320 Field Artillery of the 82d Division in France from May 1918 to May 1919. His enlistment papers record that he fought in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, in which more than 26,000 Americans died, and the battles of St. Mihiel and Ilse-Aisne.
As one of the last surviving World War I veterans, Pierro declined to talk about the battles. ''You were there for a purpose," he said. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, there are fewer than 50 World War I veterans still alive.
Following the war, he returned to Lynn and married a distant cousin, Mary Pierre. In 1922, the two built a house in Swampscott, and Pierro found new work as an auto body repair manager in Boston. The couple did not have children and, in 1946, they sold all of their belongings and moved to start a new life in Pomona, Calif. Discouraged by the winter rain in Southern California, the two moved back to the North Shore a year later and, in 1950, built a four-room Cape in Marblehead. With his auto body background, Pierro took a job at the Lynn
At GE, he was known for his ability to read blueprints and for his meticulous attention to his work, as well as his appearance. ''At the GE, they used to call him the Duke because he always came in with a suit on, and then he'd change into his work outfit," said his nephew Rick.
Pierro retired in 1961 and expanded his backyard garden, growing romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers. In 1984, 17 years after his wife died, he sold his house to another nephew, Robert Pierro, although he continued to live there until 1996. Nearing 100, Pierro kept up his regimen of chopping wood and doing yard work. When he hit the century mark, Rick invited him to move into his house.
Pierro has had some close calls over the years. He beat cancer more than 20 years ago and once broke a rib after falling from a ladder.
When he was 93, he saw a dangling branch at the top of an evergreen in his backyard. After ascending the tree by ladder, he found a sturdy branch to sit on, and began to trim the broken limb. Alone in the tree, he noticed that the ladder had fallen. Pierro sat patiently on a branch for the next eight hours before he was found by his brother Vito.
''Nothing bothers him," explained his brother Nicholas, who still drives every day and prepares meals for his older brother. Since moving in with his brother and nephew, Pierro has slightly modified his diet. He now eats eggs for breakfast once a week, has a turkey sandwich for lunch, and meat, chicken, or fish for dinner. Still, he eats chocolate and cupcakes regularly and can eat up to three muffins in one sitting.
''When he came here 10 years ago, I said he's going to live to be 110. I'm saying he's got another five years," Nicholas Pierro said. A few feet away, his older brother stood over the kitchen sink, eating a plum and drinking milk from a gallon container. He found the cap to the milk and opened the refrigerator. He then gripped the nearly full gallon of milk by its handle and with a swinging motion, thrust the container onto the top shelf and closed the door.
''Day in and day out we have this problem," said Nicholas, who prefers that his brother use a glass when he drinks milk. Nicholas, who, like his brother, has smooth skin and few wrinkles on his face, acknowledged that the two can get on each other's nerves, but said that comes with having a brother. ''Whatever advice I try to give him, he doesn't listen to me. I'm his younger brother, remember."
When Pierro's nephews or nieces visit, he gives them the same advice that he said he tried to follow most of his life. ''He always said, 'Don't steal with your hands, steal with your eyes,' " said Robert Pierro. ''What he meant by that is if you see somebody doing something, if you watch what they do, you will learn. And that's a very good philosophy."
At his kitchen table, Pierro pondered the difficulties of a life spent trying to do the right thing. He believes in God, and said honesty and hard work could extend one's life. ''You run up against life itself. It's hard to do, but still, you've got to do it. You've to got to put your foot forward so the other foot can drag next to it, and that's when you pay attention."
Pierro has not set a goal to live to a certain year. Nor does he have a set philosophy about death. As his 110th birthday approached, Pierro said, ''Life goes on, on and on, until you kick the bucket."
Steven Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com.
º Born in Forenza, Italy, to
Rocco and Nunzia Pierro, who lived to 90 and 91, respectively.
º Married to Mary Pierre, who died in 1967 after 47 years of marriage. She was 68. The couple had no children.
º Siblings -- five brothers and a sister; three of the brothers lived to 89, 86, and 81. He lives with the fourth, Nicholas, who is 96.
º At right, in a family photo
taken in 1916: (standing from left) brothers Michael, Guarino, and Antonio, and father, Rocco (seated).
º Enlisted in the Army on Oct. 4, 1917 (right).
º Served in
Battery E, 320 Field Artillery of the 82d Division, from May 1918 to May 1919.
º Fought in France in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, where more than 26,000
º One of the last surviving veterans of
World War I.
AT HOME INMASSACHUSETTS
º Has lived in
Boston, Marblehead, Lynn, Swampscott, and Pomona, Calif. (for a
year in 1946).
º Worked in shoe shops and factories in Lynn, as an auto body repair manager in Boston, and as a sheet-metal worker for General
Electric in Lynn.
º Retired 45 years ago.
What are your secrets to living a long life? Diet? Exercise? Iodine? Log on to www.boston.com/northtalk. Or write to firstname.lastname@example.org, or Globe North, 1 Corporate Place, Suite 200, 55 Ferncroft Road, Danvers, Mass., 01923.