Anthony Simone has difficulty breathing, a result of a leaky heart valve. His mobility is limited, as are his kidney functions, but none of that stops him from carrying on a conversation with whoever is around at Oyster Bay Manor, where he has been living for a little over a year. The celebration of his 100th birthday there on June 20, when he was surrounded by friends and family, was a joyous occasion, one he says he will never forget.
Before the birthday bash, the Guardian asked Simone how he has managed to live so long. “I have good genes and good luck,” he said, lying on his bed, having just awakened from a nap. “My siblings and parents lived a long time, too.”
But his granddaughter, Gina Hoagland, 53, who lives in St. Louis and was visiting to celebrate her “Pop Pop’s” birthday, said she believed there was more to it. “It’s because of his sense of engagement,” she said. “He’s a curious person, and has always been someone who enjoyed life.”
Simone still follows the stock market, checking his portfolio often on the computer Hoagland bought him when he turned 90. And his memory? Let’s just say it shouldn’t be questioned. It is almost always dead-on.
“He remembers everything, and throws it back at you, especially when he was right,” said his grandson, Andrew Galgano, grinning. “He’s a ball-buster, and he’s pretty funny, too.”
Galgano, 51, lives about a mile away in Mill Neck, making it easy for him to visit his grandfather, which he does a few nights a week and on Sundays. They have been close since his childhood, when Galgano would spend the weekend at his grandparents’ Lindenhurst home.
Even though he hasn’t been there long, Simone has already made many friends at Oyster Bay Manor. At the party, the room was packed. Even so, sitting in a wheelchair, he looked around the room in amazement. When the seniors sang along with the four versions of “Happy Birthday” that were played by a DJ, Simone briefly cried, though a smile never left his face.
Simone has lived a full life, but it is his high school years that he recalls most fondly. “I enjoyed high school,” he said. “It was easy, I was smart and got along with everyone.”
His years growing up in Bethpage remain important to him too. “There were only a few businesses, and there were mostly farms,” he recalled. “We played baseball and football in those fields — the usual. You could buy a laundry bag of cauliflower for 50 cents.”
Questioned a bit more, he admitted that the happiest time was really when he met his future wife, Ethel Auer, when they were both 19. “I met her when she was going out with my friend and she liked me better,” he chuckled. “I liked her immediately. She was so pretty.”
They married in December 1941, and were always more than lovers. They were best friends too, he said.
Years in the service
Simone was drafted into the Navy in May 1944, and served as an aviation mechanic during World War II on the aircraft carrier USS Bennington. He maintained the planes that took off from the carrier to fight the enemy. He can distinctly remember how long he was in the Navy — “One year, 11 months and 10 days,” he said, without hesitation. Simone was in three major battles, though he can only remember two — Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Asked what they were like, he smiled. “I didn’t hurt anyone, and no one hurt me,” he said. “Being an aviator mechanic was either very boring or too hard and rough, depending on whether we were being attacked or not.”
Although he is nonchalant when speaking of his service, he was actually often in danger. Bill Evanzia, 90, who lives in Westbury, is one of Simone’s longtime friends. He also served in the Navy, but as a communications officer.
“Tony was very lucky his ship wasn’t hit,” Evanzia said. “The ships alongside him were hit very heavily.”
Simone had the sobering experience of witnessing the aftermath of Pearl Harbor in 1945. “He told me that when he got to Pearl Harbor the half-sunk ships were sticking out of the water,” Hoagland said. “As he rolled through the narrow corridor he could touch them.”
And he was also nearby on another historical occasion, in August 1945. “He was on the water during the fighting in the Pacific theater, headed for Japan, when the ship all of a sudden stopped and turned around,” Hoagland said. “There was an announcement that America had developed a new weapon, the atomic bomb.”
That September, Simone took part in the occupation of Japan. Hoagland said her grandfather told her the story often of the admiral who addressed the fleet before they went ashore, reminding them that they were representatives of the U.S. government. “The admiral said that they were to treat the Japanese with respect or the men would answer to him,” she said. “‘You don’t get to take your anger out on the Japanese people,’ Pop Pop told me he said.”
Simone was honorably discharged in February of 1946.
When he returned to the States, he got a job with the Republic Aviation Corporation building airplanes, including fighter planes and P45’s. “It was a job,” he said, “but I always liked it.”
He also more than liked to fish. And he was good at it.
Evanzia was Simone’s fishing buddy for 50 years. “We met because of fishing,” he said. “It’s not very difficult to become friends if you love fishing.”
Simone would often bring his wife and daughter fishing aboard his wooden powerboat, Pacemaker. “We even used to trade off boats,” Evanzia said, adding that Simone fished from March through December. “We’d go out where you’d have to break through the ice at the boat basin. It was a nice time.”
Living until age 100 usually includes experiencing heartbreak. Simone could never bring himself to leave the Lindenhurst home that he and Ethel bought in 1943, even after she died of osteoporosis in January 1989. He depended on his only child, a daughter, Carol Simone, who lived in Oyster Bay Cove. She took him wherever he wanted to go and tended to his health care. But then Carol was diagnosed with cancer.
“He always worried about her,” Hoagland said. “A poignant moment was when Mom was in hospice. He would sit next to her and hold her hand.”
When doctors came into the room, Simone would tell them he was Carol’s father. “He’d say, ‘She may be 75 but she’s still my little girl,’” Hoagland said. “He was 99 then, but still asked the doctor questions.”
Asked to describe his friend, Evanzia paused. “A very caring individual who has always loved his wife, daughter and grandchildren,” he said. “He was a jolly fisherman and always a very supportive individual — that is what defines him.”