Bountiful birthday wishes for beloved centenarian

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About 100 gather to celebrate Kennett Square man’s 100th 

By Kathleen Brady SheaManaging Editor, The Times

Mike DiPietro reads the many greetings that he received on his 100th birthday.

Mike DiPietro reads the many greetings that he received on his 100th birthday.

On Sunday, people celebrated from as far away as Italy – jubilantly singing birthday wishes on the computer. The more fortunate revelers traveled to Kennett Square from near and distant, including Boston. A state representative and a state senator delivered special greetings. Even the White House chimed in.

The occasion? The 100th birthday of  Michele “Mike” DiPietro, an unassuming, beloved borough resident who has crammed several lifetimes into one.  In fact, long before most Kennett-area residents were born, DiPietro, who was drafted into the Italian army in 1933, had been deployed in Mombasa, Kenya, and endured five years as a British prisoner during World War II before finding his way home to Cesa, a village in southwestern Italy, in 1946.

Since then, DiPietro, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1958, has continued to attract adventure, accomplishments, friends, and fans, many of them longstanding. About 100 people gathered at the Red Clay Room Sunday afternoon to honor him, generating a virtually nonstop series of superlatives.

Mike DiPietro poses with 9-year-old Michael Fragale Jr., the son of DiPietro’s barber.

Mike DiPietro poses with 9-year-old Michael Fragale Jr., the son of DiPietro’s barber.

DiPietro garnered accolades for being an outstanding friend, father, godfather, adopted father, neighbor, mentor, worker, and winemaker  – his coveted merlot took first place at an Italian American Club competition. He was also repeatedly cited as an inspiration. Laura Elliott, now a junior at Kennett High, interviewed DiPietro for an English assignment in middle school. “The teacher liked it so much she had her read it to the class,” said her mother, Filomena Elliott.

DiPietro has lived for nearly five decades with his wife, Teresa, in the Kennett Square duplex they bought after he sweet-talked her into leaving her homeland and marrying an older man. She’s a youthful 85.

“You couldn’t ask for a better neighbor; I’m truly blessed,” said Virginia Mancino, whose home is the other half of the DiPietros’ twin on West South Street. Mancino and her husband have lived next door for 28 years; the home’s original owner was her husband’s grandmother.

Prior to residing at the entrance to Harvey Circle, where DiPietro is affectionately known as “the mayor,” he lived in Avondale, where he met Domenic Diubaldo 56 years ago. Diubaldo recalled his family’s move to America when he was a young boy. A little less than a year later, DiPietro, who had been “sponsored” by the same mushroom grower as Diubaldo’s father, showed up. Although the families came from the same region of Italy, they hadn’t known each other previously.

Mike DiPietro reads one of the commendations from local lawmakers held by his daughter, Lisa DiPietro, as Kennett Square Police Chief Edward A. Zunino Jr. prepares to hand him another one.

Mike DiPietro reads one of the commendations from local lawmakers held by his daughter, Lisa DiPietro, as Kennett Square Police Chief Edward A. Zunino Jr. prepares to hand him another one.

The mushroom work was grueling – “I remember one time they got paid $35 for working 90 hours” – but Diubaldo said his family developed a close relationship with DiPietro, who eventually moved in with them. “We had a lot of fun,” Diubaldo said. “This is truly a happy day.”

For his part, DiPietro downplayed the fuss, but his infectious smile suggested he wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. However, he did express minor disappointment that the card from the Obamas didn’t include a check. “Maybe I should send it back” in case they forgot, he joked. Asked about the best perk of being a centenarian, he had a quick response: “Being surrounded by all these wonderful people.”

Lois Zunino, who’s known the family for years, said she told the guest of honor that she was honored to participate in the festivities, and DiPietro immediately reversed the sentiment, insisting that the honor was all his. “That’s just the type of guy he is,” she said.

Her husband, Kennett Square Police Chief Edward A. Zunino, said his ties to the family date back 40 years when Zunino’s brother worked at Hewlett Packard with DiPietro. “He’s just an  amazing guy,” said Zunino, who delivered commendations from Rep. Chris Ross and Sen. Dominic Pileggi.

Enjoying his 100th birthday party, Mike DiPietro is flanked by his daughter, Lisa, and his wife, Teresa.

Enjoying his 100th birthday party, Mike DiPietro is flanked by his daughter, Lisa, and his wife, Teresa.

DiPietro started working for Hewlett Packard in the late ‘60s. He retired at age 70 after 20 years with the company. Despite spending two decades with a computer giant, DiPietro never joined the internet world, said his daughter, Lisa DiPietro, who organized Sunday’s celebration. She said her father, who worked in the machine shop, was far-removed from desktops and laptops. “He’s absolutely amazed by the technology,” she said.

For example, he loved seeing his overseas relatives sing “Happy Birthday” in Italian online. And he was equally wowed when Patty Lawton, who had traveled from Boston, held up her cell phone so that DiPietro could watch and listen as her 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son crooned “Happy Birthday” using Facetime. She said DiPietro was so moved that he reached over to touch the screen. “It was so sweet the way he did that,” she said.

Lisa DiPietro said people routinely question her father about the secret to his longevity. “He will tell you there is no secret: Just live a good, healthy life,” she said.

Well, maybe there is a small one, Mike DiPietro acknowledged with a grin. “I drink a glass of wine every day,” he whispered. What kind? “My own,” he said, his smile widening. He no longer makes the annual trip to South Philadelphia to purchase the ingredients, but friends are happy to provide that service so that his wine-making can continue. His tip for a prize-winner? Mix some muscat grapes with the merlot.

Mike DiPietro describes himself as being “in pretty good health.” He’s not as mobile as he once was, but even that has  some advantages: His barber, Michael Fragale Sr., now makes house calls.

Lisa DiPietro, the couple’s only child, said she started planning the birthday bash in September, but she had lots of help, especially in the baking department. Her mother prepared her signature cream puffs, which were enjoyed along with an assortment of Italian cookies that rivaled any bakery display. On the birthday cake, her father blew out four candles, one for each quarter-century.

“My dad has lived an amazing life and I am so very blessed that he is still a part of my life to this day,” she said.

Pam Lane, a longtime friend, said the community is blessed by the presence of the DiPietros. “They’re just a phenomenal family,” she said. But she did have one complaint about the party: Finding the right birthday card was a challenge. “I kept seeing the same 100thbirthday card everywhere I went,” she said, adding that she didn’t want DiPietro to end up with multiple, duplicate cards. In the end, the struggle spotlighted his unique status.

In her essay on DiPietro, Laura Elliott explained his philosophy: “…to try to be the best person he can, try to meet nice people and learn from them, and to care for others.”

“He is the man who loves to laugh and can light up the room with his smile,” she concluded. “He has been a friend of my mother’s family for many years, and I am proud to know him.”

Many Kennett-area residents feel exactly the same way.

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