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Veteran celebrates 100th birthday with family and friends

100th birthday (MatissDzelve/Pixabay)

World War II veteran James Pastorelli looked out his window, from his bed, and listened to a group of his friends sing a song he has heard a hundred times throughout his life.

The song was “Happy Birthday.”

Pastorelli, of Merrifield Drive in Kennebunk, Maine, turned a century old last Saturday and celebrated the milestone in the socially distant way that has become a tradition in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. While he and his family enjoyed cake indoors, friends wished him a happy birthday from his backyard outdoors. The whole experience made him happy, he said.

“It’s a milestone,” Pastorelli said in an interview. “There seems to be more and more people living beyond that age, especially women.”

Three of Pastorelli’s aunts — two on his father’s side and one on his mother’s — got close to those triple digits, living into their 90s, he said, so there is definitely longevity in his family tree. To his knowledge, though, Pastorelli is the first to hit a hundred.

Pastorelli was born in 1920 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, “just a stone’s throw from Boston College,” as he put it. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army in France, Germany and Austria — first with the 71st Infantry Division, then with the 14th Infantry Regiment, and finally with the 3rd Military Government Regiment. Today, he is a member of American Legion Post 74 in Kennebunk.

Pastorelli spent his career in the automobile business, first as a development director for Volkswagen, setting up dealerships throughout New England, and eventually as the owner of one of his own, Coastal Volkswagen and Subaru on Route 1 in Saco, shortly after he and his wife, Bernita, and their family moved to Kennebunk in 1968. Pastorelli sold the dealership in 1982 and retired.

Asked to share some of the wisdom he has accrued over the past 10 decades, Pastorelli said respect is important: respect for people, especially seniors, respect for the government, and respect for “all those who are dear to you.”

“I have a good family,” Pastorelli said.

A person can do a lot in a century. Fortunately, Pastorelli has shared the one he has lived with the Brick Store Museum. Last year, the museum recorded Pastorelli telling stories about his life as part of its ongoing efforts to collect the oral histories of local residents.

During the 100-minute interview with Joe Foster, a local retired history teacher, Pastorelli takes listeners through the “devastating” days of the Great Depression in the 1930s, his wartime experiences in Europe, and his career in the automobile industry. Pastorelli also tells the story of how he met Bernita at a dance hall in Dedham, Massachusetts, in the 1940s. Bernita passed away in 2010.

The museum’s oral history program started in the 1970s, according to Cynthia Walker, the executive director of the museum. The recordings will be digitized one day and will be made available to the public, Walker added.

“Anybody can be interviewed!” she said in an email. “I have had the honor of interviewing several Vietnam-era veterans who live here in southern Maine about their experiences in the 1960s and beyond. My most recent interview was with a local resident diagnosed with polio in 1955 … really, anyone who has a story to tell – which we all do!”

Those who would like have their histories recorded, or who know someone who might, are encouraged to contact Walker at [email protected].

As part of a reinvigoration of the program, Walker said the museum is working to create a Kennebunk History Corps, a group of volunteers who will be trained to venture into the community and record the oral histories of residents.

“Since everyone has a story, we need a whole team to be able to collect on the scale we’re planning,” she said.

A recorded oral history, such as the one Pastorelli has provided, provides a personal touch that you cannot get from other primary sources or from a history book.

“Not only can you hear about intimate experiences throughout our modern history, but you can see and hear someone’s mannerisms — their joy, sadness, anger, or any other emotion related to how we all experience the world,” Walker said.


© 2020 Portsmouth Herald