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Hold On To A Moment: A Journey to Jersey Centenarians: A Series: Meet William Theodore Zimmerman; World War II Veteran   March 16, 2015 Calvin Schwartz Hold On To A Moment: A Journey to Jersey Centenarians: A Series: Meet William Theodore Zimmerman; World War II Veteran March 16, 2015 Calvin Schwartz(2)

Hold On To A Moment: A Journey to Jersey Centenarians: A Series: Meet William Theodore Zimmerman; World War II Veteran   March 14, 2015    By: Calvin Schwartz


For years, I’ve been watching Willard Scott’s segment on ‘The Today Show’ where the face of a centenarian (100 years or older) appears on a jar of jelly for a brief moment while he recites a sentence or two about their lives; perhaps mentioning a life style or diet which helped longevity. For decades, I’ve observed that life is for the living. As soon as you can’t shoot hoops, or drive at night, or put eye drops in, or remember President Kennedy, it may be time for assisted living or a nursing home or an obscure room in a finished basement; out of sight, mainstream and utilization. Invisibility is a factor. It’s hard to notice seniors on the beach, in a mall or at a football game; but they’re there. How often are they engaged? These are heavy thoughts. I hope to capture them all; they’ve been floating around my sensibilities since 1965 when I was a student at Rutgers College of Pharmacy. Sitting in the back of a lecture hall, doodling in a notebook, I decided not to age traditionally; a long story and my upcoming second novel.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about all those relatives who’ve passed and how it seems I didn’t hold them longer and embrace time. Fists are clenched in a futile gesture of wishing for a few more moments; if only. A few months back, I came to the stark realization that I am the family patriarch now. How did that happen?

A long winding road has taken me from pharmacy and eyewear careers to writing and journalism and rock music with a few green rooms for socialization. It’s like I want to yell, “Hey Mah, look no hands and I fit in perfectly and I’m the oldest one.” A few years ago, I was invited to journalistically cover the 101st birthday party for Emily Cook. We became friends and I eventually interviewed her on camera for national media; she invited me back to her room on camera. (Video link available) That was a special moment for me; she was vital, funny, worldly, out-spoken and replete with knowledge and experience wanting to share. I went to her next birthday party and visited during the year as a friend.  Her Herbert Hoover and Depression stories fascinated. The lesson was how precious, energetic and insightful she was and that I could learn from her; Use it or lose it deal.


All of the aforementioned are the yellow brick road components to my journalistic journey to meet and absorb our precious centenarians in an on-going series and eventually a novel (book). And now, meet William Theodore Zimmerman.

As a Jersey journalist, I was thrilled to be in the shadow of Rutgers stadium, an area rich in colonial history, interviewing a centenarian in a house that was built in 1830; all key energetic ambiance factors for me. Then Warren Zimmerman, from the State Theater in New Brunswick, escorted his father William Theodore Zimmerman, the 100 year old birthday boy into the living room. William was perfectly appointed wearing a herring bone sport coat; his big family party was an hour later. There was no way William was 100; maybe 80. Once we started talking, I was convinced he was a few decades younger. His voice resonated with a certain excitement, authority and youth.




“How does it feel to be 100?” “No different.” He chuckled. I asked what he did for a living. He was quick to answer, smiling coyly. “I am nothing. All I am is a Jack of All Trades and a Master of None. I did everything you can imagine.”

“Years ago, you only worked as long as they needed you. I worked in the shipyards of Hoboken. You went down there and got picked out of a crowd to do a job. Maybe you got three days of work; maybe one. If you were a good worker, they picked you more often.” All of a sudden I had a flashback of Marlon Brando and the movie, ‘On the Waterfront,’ which took place right where William worked.

“You grew up in the Depression?” What I liked about interviewing William, was his ever-present smile and rapid fire responses. He is so sharp; a gift. “There’s a lot of difference between a Depression years ago and today. The whole country was in a depression and everybody was poor with no work. It was a hard time to get food. In the city where we lived (North Bergen) if you couldn’t buy food, you didn’t eat. When we finally moved to Piscataway, my mother had three or four acres so we grew our own food.”



I always get a kick out of asking about President Herbert Hoover akin to my son asking me about President Kennedy. “I was a kid. How much did I know about politics? I thought he was good. But we had to move a lot when we ran out of money and couldn’t pay rent. We searched around and hired a horse and wagon to move our stuff. There was no car.”  The horse reference was like a gentle reality slap to my face to snap out of it. William really went back 100 years.

There was a chronological order to my planned interview. Next was World War II although Warren mentioned a few days earlier that his father never talked about the war.   But then William started to talk with a special vigor. “I was in the Navy. This guy tricked me. I was a welder and worked for GM then. GM got a big contract to teach employees different things. They taught me chrome-moly welding; then the war. I enlisted in the Navy. I said to the guy that I was taught welding. I have a certificate which I didn’t get yet. He said don’t worry about it. They were going to give me rate of third class petty officer. He tricked me right into it.” Then I had another movie flashback thinking of Goldie Hawn, in ‘Private Benjamin’ when she was tricked into thinking the Army accommodations were like Club Med.

William was in the Navy for 3 ½ years. He worked up to 2nd class ship fitter. I asked if he saw any action. He laughed loudly. “Quite a bit. I was on the battleship Arkansas. When I first got on, they told us convoy duty taking cargo and people to Europe.” Once again I had a flashback. Coincidentally, a month earlier, I watched the ‘Victory at Sea’ series from the 1950’s featuring the music of Richard Rodgers. An hour show was devoted to convoys and their ever-present danger from German subs.


“Then they talked about the coming invasion.” William’s peaking enthusiasm at this juncture made me think I was talking to a 40 year old. “They put us into the New York Navy Yard and rebuilt our ship which was built in 1914. The biggest guns we had was 12” and we didn’t have the 16” like newer ships. Now we became a fighting ship. Then the invasion; our target was Juno beach. Since we were an older ship, they told us because our big turrets shot only so far, that we had to beach our ship and then fire. The Germans were fortified. We figured the end of us. We got there at 3 AM and opened fire at day break. Then when we opened fire, we did so well; we got orders not to beach it. After the invasion, Cherbourg was a powerful German fortress and we got orders with the (USS) Texas and other ships to go in and draw their fire.”  Being a good reporter, I went to Google and checked out his story. William was right on. I even found a picture of the Arkansas and Texas being fired upon. He is so sharp.

After a while they shipped William and the Arkansas to the Pacific. “We went to Guam and Iwo Jima where they put the flag.” I knew it’s one of the most famous military pictures. “That was our target 2 ½ miles off the coast. We saw the flag. It was beautiful. After Iwo Jima we went to Okinawa but I’m not sure if it’s the right order. Then we were in a typhoon. Then we were supposed to go to Japan but they dropped the bomb.” William reinforced my memory of President Truman deciding to drop the bomb rather than risk all those American and Japanese lives during a prolonged land invasion.




When William came home, a lot of people wanted him to talk about the war but he wanted to forget. “So many people were killed but it had to be.” He also realized he was on the luckiest ship. He told me about D-Day and the German planes flying so close overhead, he could see their large swastika. He was up on deck manning a 3” anti-aircraft gun. The next day they heard that a German plane had a bomb on it that got stuck and crashed and exploded. “It could’ve sunk us.”

It was time to change subjects. “What do you like best about New Jersey?” “Everything; I love New Jersey.” The biggest change for William was population growth. Being a movie buff, I had to tap into his history.  He laughed when I mentioned movies. “I have to laugh. Charlie Chaplin used to tickle me. I got a kick out of him and Harold Lloyd, the guy with glasses. Jerry Lewis was very talented.”  William likes all kinds of music and the big bands like Glenn Miller and Dorsey. He plays a little piano, played football in Weehawken, basketball and tennis as well but doesn’t like hockey because “all they do is fight.”

He reiterated all the jobs he had working for GM, Ford, Rutgers Prep, floorcovering, home improvements. He helped build his mother, sisters and his own house. “I don’t know how I had all this energy or lived this long. I don’t know how good vitamins are. What I did all my life was listen to my parents.”




We were winding down our time together. The front doorbell rang as party guests started to arrive. He volunteered this next segment. “Bill, what can I do to live as long as you? Women especially asked that.” He chuckled when he said that. What a sense of humor. “I had two good parents, two good wives. I did everything in moderation; everything but smoke.  My mother was a practical nurse who hated smoking. My generation; we were poor but happy. My parents taught us religion. We didn’t always have to go to church; you have it in your home. Just look at my two boys. There is a supreme being; too many miracles in this world.”

Miracles; a good word to finish my time with William; It fit perfectly. I’ve got to come up with reasons to spend more time with him. We hugged and I thanked him. Then I told him the one word in my mind from the beginning of our hour; enchanting.  And he is perfectly so.






Three years ago, because of a special synchronicity, I was invited to the birthday party of Emily Cook, turning 101, at Arbor Terrace of Middletown (formerly Regal Pointe). It was a particularly poignant experience for me. I got a chance to talk to Emily at length after her festive party with all the senior residents, musical entertainment (Jerry Spathis)and a birthday cake fit for a centenarian. Emily was sharp and filled with emoted memories. Her descriptions of the Great Depression and her life in general were riveting. We became friends and the following year, I went to her 102nd birthday party and somewhere in between parties, I managed to bring a TV crew and interview her live. On camera, she invited me back to her room; I laughed and still do, thinking about that.


The video went national. I learned a life lesson; how precious and meaningful time spent with seniors can be.  They can fill your senses and quest for historical first-hand accounts; that unique commentary/perspective not found on Google. Too often these days, I wish upon a star I had spent more time talking to grandparents and parents and seniors down the block, filling a void in my roots and knowledge.







I got a message a few weeks ago on Facebook from Darci Voight Kennedy, from Arbor Terrace, that another resident (it’s not assisted living but independent senior living), Hattie Smelter was turning 100 on December 12th and once again I was invited to the birthday party. I knew right away I’d be there.

Arbor Place was adorned with balloons and party signage. Waiting for the party to begin, Hattie, perfectly coiffed and looking 25 years younger than her age, was sitting off to the side in the lobby talking to the party entertainer, a vibrant talented Cathy DaPrato. I overheard Hattie mention one of her favorite songs was ‘Goodnight Sweetheart.’  I remembered the song from ‘American Graffiti’ and originally from the ‘Spaniels’ in 1954; still within my memory banks.

I sat and listened to a hit parade of memorable songs while the party rolled on. Hattie got up to dance with several different partners. Again she looked 25 years younger; she moved gracefully. While entertainer Cathy was talking, a resident, John Sorrentino, sat down next to me. He was only 91 and met Hattie for the first time a year ago at the mailbox which he had a hard time opening due to failing vision. Hattie walked over, took the key and opened it. A few weeks later he asked Hattie to be his girlfriend. She replied, “It’s too late.” John went on to tell me about his career as a building inspector in Florida. Later in his apartment, he’d show me a commendation letter for being honest and avoiding corruption and an invitation from President Bush to attend a special dinner. John hinted we should work on a book of his life.




When Cathy sang ‘Sweet Caroline’ most of the residents swung their hands side to side; they were into it; another couple nearby just held hands. The cake was cut, champagne passed around and it was time for Hattie and me.  She was born in Jersey City on December 12, 1914. When she was 15 years old she worked for the American Can Company. “Do you remember it?” Of course I did.  “I went to Saint Anthony’s grammar school for three years then public school. I left when I was in eighth grade because I had to go to work. You know, The Depression. For a woman it was easier to get a job.”   I knew why; they paid women less. Hattie blurted out, “$7 a week.”

But she worked for the American Can Company only during the summer months because she was under age. “They wanted my birth certificate so I never went back.” She laughed.  “Then I got this job. I worked in one place for 34 years.” I thought about Tom Brokaw and the greatest generation and wondered if people today regularly work in the same places for 34 years; Hattie was tough stuff I kept thinking. Maybe it was a contributing factor to living to 100. I decided not to ask her the typical question.

She worked all those years for Mongolia Importing Company testing casings for hot dogs and kielbasa. “I was in water all day long; rubber boots and apron. I used to gauge the casings. When my mother was sick I took a few weeks off. My job was always there.”




“How’d you meet your husband?”  “I was going to a dance with two of my lady friends in Bayonne at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish. Leo was on the bus. He had a gold tooth. I’ll never forget it. At the dance he comes over and starts talking and going back home he sat with me on the bus. After that, we kept company (I remember my mother always used that expression) for 18 months then we got married. We stayed married for 60 years. I had a daughter, Dorothy who passed away a few years ago.”

All of a sudden Hattie interjects, “Make sure you write good stuff, nothing bad about me.”  “Is there bad stuff?”  “I hope not,” she was quick to respond.  I asked about music. She likes the radio, Bing Crosby and TV; she especially likes ‘Kelly and Michael,’ whom she is going to see in person in January. They have a special program at Arbor Terrace corporate where they seek to fulfill bucket list for their residents. Hattie’s is going to meet Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan.

I knew I forgot to introduce myself when we started. “I’m Calvin by the way.”  “I remember Calvin Coolidge,” she stated randomly almost. “Do you remember him as President? Did you like him?”
“I forgot about him.” I thought that was so typical. No one has much to say about my namesake although I’ve been reading about an undercurrent that Coolidge is coming into vogue; history may discover he was far better than originally thought. “I remember Herbert Hoover. We used to say here comes Hoover on a horse.”




“What was it like during the depression?”  Hattie shook her head. “People used to sell apples. It was real bad. I had a job which was good. I bought shoes for myself for 99 cents. Would you believe it? Do you know how you used to pay? They put the money in a box and sent it up. They were never robbed. Then they sent the change back down. Then I bought laces for five cents.”

“During World War II, what did you do?”  “I used to work on Flit cans (Flit was an insecticide launched in 1923). Do you remember it?”  “Yes I do!”  “I used to solder them. I made a mistake once and soldered them together. I was tired. They moved me to five gallon cans.”

Hattie’s friends kept coming over to congratulate her. She asked if the party was over. I guess it was time for me too.  How engaging and delightful my time with Hattie was.  I did savor every moment. There’s a message and lesson; to do this regularly and absorb, interact and cherish. I asked Hattie if I could come to her 101st birthday party. We shook hands on it. She had a firm grip. She left a firm grip on my soul.






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