Facing Tough Challenges & Secrets to a Happy Life

Featuring Rocco Brienzo

Retired Firefighter & World War II Veteran

At 103, Rocco Brienzo has lived through the Great Depression, served in World War II, and built a family in postwar small-town America. Here, this optimistic, vivacious centenarian reflects on challenging times, love and loss, and shares his secret to a happy life.
AMY KWAK: Where and when were you born?

ROCCO BRIENZO: My parents came to the US from southern Italy in 1912, and I was born in East Boston in 1919. We moved to Lynn, Massachusetts in the spring of 1929, just before the stock market crash. It wasn’t easy during the depression. My parents paid $8,000 for our house in April of 1929, and after the crash in October, it was worth $2,000. My oldest sister, who was 15 at the time, left school to work at the GE lamp company making Christmas tree lights to support the family. She was then diagnosed with tuberculosis and couldn’t go back to work. She lived until she was 29 years old. Without her help as a teenager, we would have lost the house.

AMY KWAK: Do you remember much about the Depression?

ROCCO BRIENZO: Yes, it was really bad. As a youngster, I got a job as a caddy at a country club for $4-$6/week to help the family. After I graduated from high school, I couldn’t find a job, so I joined the CCC (the Civilian Conservation Corps, a work relief program that was part of the New Deal). I earned $30/month, $25 of which went to my family. I was assigned to drive supplies to camp from Colorado to Wyoming 3 days a week.
AMY KWAK: You served in the Navy during WW II. When did you join the Navy?
ROCCO BRIENZO: In 1943, I was a young husband with a baby boy, working for GE on military equipment. I was deferred from the draft for 6 months. At the end of that deferral, rather than get drafted for the Army, I volunteered to enlist in the Naval Reserves. In the Naval Reserves, I became a motor machinist in the engine room of a ship in the Pacific. We went to Bora Bora, Fiji, and New Guinea. I was stationed in New Guinea for a year, and then was ordered by the military to go to school to learn about diesel engines. So I returned to the US and went to diesel school in Cleveland. I ended up being one of the top 10 students, became a diesel engine instructor, and was eventually stationed in South Carolina. There, I maintained the diesel engines that supplied power to military aircraft. I trained the men who would then go overseas to operate the equipment.
AMY KWAK: What did you do after the war?
ROCCO BRIENZO: I applied for a job at the fire department. At the time, you had to be at least 5’ 6”, and I was 5’ 5 3/4”. So I went to a chiropractor who set me on a table, stretched my legs, and said I was now 5’ 6 1/4”. He told me to try and lay down the whole time until they measured me. So after he stretched me, I got in the car with my friend and was laying down in the back seat on my way to get measured. When we got there, it was really crowded, so I found a bench to lay down on while I was waiting to be measured. I ended up being 5′ 5 7/8”, so I stood as tall as I could and pushed my hair up to make a bump. I was only 1/8” short, but they still wouldn’t let me pass. Another applicant who didn’t make the height cut knew a politician who managed to get the law changed to a 5’ 5” height requirement, but because the law was passed after I was cut, I had to re-apply. I finally ended up getting hired by the fire department and spent 32 years there – 13 years as a firefighter, and 19 years as a fire department mechanic, eventually becoming the master mechanic.
AMY KWAK: Where did you meet your wife?

ROCCO BRIENZO: I met my wife, Margurite, at a dance in 1940. I couldn’t find a job, so I decided to join the Merchant Marines. I had to report for duty on Friday. I told my friend, I’m going to a dance before I go overseas. So I went to this dance and danced with one girl, but I couldn’t dance 2 steps with her. She was stepping all over me, and I was stepping all over her. It was awful! I was about to go home, but decided to try dancing one more time. And then I saw this pretty girl and asked her to dance. When we danced, I felt like Fred Astaire! I couldn’t do anything wrong. I danced all over the place! I could slide and was having such a wonderful time. I felt like I could do anything! When the night was over, I said, “Goodnight, can I see you again?” She said, “I can see you on Saturday.” Well, I had to leave Friday on the ship (for the Merchant Marines) and I thought, “Jeepers, what am I going to do? I have to leave on Friday and I have a date on Saturday.” So I said, to heck with the Merchant Marines, and didn’t report for duty!

That dance was the best thing that I ever did. A year after we met, I said, “Will you marry me?” She said, “Did you have to ask me?” She had been waiting and waiting for me to ask her, and I was too stupid!

Margurite and I were married 75 years. We had 3 kids – a son and 2 daughters, 9 grandkids, and 5 great grandkids. My wife was an amazing woman. She had so many good qualities. She was 99 when she died. The morning that she died, she told me she didn’t feel good. I asked if I should call the doctor and she said, no, I’ll be alright. Then she said, “Rocky, I love you, I love you,” and put her arms around me, and I held her and she passed away. I didn’t know what to say, so I started singing to her:

Mother dear remember me
and never cease thy care
‘til in heaven eternally
thy love and bliss I’ll share

I can’t thank God enough that we were together.

AMY KWAK: You are such a positive person who has clearly lived a very full and rich life. What’s your secret to life?

ROCCO BRIENZO: Not to be afraid – to go ahead and do things. I had no fear. A lot of times you see something that needs to be done and you might think, I can’t do that. I never thought like that. If something had to be done, I just went ahead and did it, even if I didn’t have any experience.

I remember my brother-in-law had bought a new house and needed a plumber. I had never done any plumbing, but I just went ahead and figured it out. Now I think God was with me, because whenever I had a job that I couldn’t do, pretty soon someone would come up to me and was able to help. I think God sent help to me every time, and I got things done. I had such a beautiful life with so many beautiful people I met along the way.

I have too much to be thankful for. How can I complain? How can I be anything but happy? Everyone has aches and pains and problems. But who cares? I have too much to be positive about. I am more concerned about my friends and neighbors than about myself.

I like life. Life has been good to me. God has been good to me. I’ve had my problems, my sicknesses. But everyone does, so you don’t carry them around with you.

I had no fear. A lot of times you see something that needs to be done and you might think, I can't do that. I never thought like that. If something had to be done, I just went ahead and did it, even if I didn't have any experience.

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