One of Casa Serena Mobile Home Park’s most popular residents — known to greet female residents with a kiss and “Bonjour, bonjour!” as he rides his bicycle — is set to celebrate a milestone birthday in grand fashion.
Joe Guarneri turns 100 years old on Monday, Oct. 1. A party in his honor will be attended by his numerous relatives and friends beginning at 3 p.m. in the clubhouse at the mobile home park at 661 S. Hawes Road near Sossaman and Ellsworth roads in Mesa.
Guarneri, who still has a full head of hair (it’s silver now), was born the year Arizona became a state and a few months after the Titanic sank. He grew up in the rough and tumble Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City learning how to fight as an adolescent from boxer Johnny Wilson, the Middleweight Champion of the World. Guarneri went on to win Elgin pocket watches in bouts as he later was able to fend for himself as a teenager.
So what is his secret to remaining so active and surviving to the century mark?
“Slow horses and fast women,” Guarneri said. “It was simple. I just take it as it comes. I didn’t do anything different than anyone else. I ate all the same things and never drank to excess. I always do something to stay busy. I don’t sit around much or watch a lot of TV.”
In-between visiting his wife of 64 years, Phyllis, in an assisted living home, Guarneri also stays active with military veterans like himself, collecting aluminum cans to be sold for recycling to benefit the Paralyzed American Veterans Association.
“It’s my way of helping out,” he said.
Helping people is old hat for him.
Guarneri was the son of Italian immigrants Joseph and Rose Guarneri and a third-generation butcher. He retired from the Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain in St. Paul, Minn. in 1973 where he worked for 32 years before he and his wife moved to Arizona that year. He followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, who owned Joe’s Butcher Shop in New York City. Those were the days before electric refrigeration, when meat was cut by hand and veal was 16 cents a pound.
In addition to being a longtime butcher himself, Guarneri has been no regular Joe.
During his 100 years, he was a 12-year-old bootlegger, an air gunner on a B-17 Bomber with the Army Air Corps’ 386th Bomb Group in the European Campaign during World War II, a dancer, a singer, a former dance instructor for the Arthur Murray Dance Studios — and one who loves his family.
The best thing about his life?
“My kids,” Guarneri said.
He and Phyllis have four children: James, Nancy, Thomas and Roselie.
The couple also has about 50 grandchildren and about 25 great-grandchildren, many of whom will be at the party on Monday.
Guarneri also reached a measure of fame when he performed as part of an all-boys choir and appeared for a performance in the 1939 World’s Fair in New York production, “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”
After coming home from the war, I met my wife and we got married,” he said. “Being in show business and on the road all the time is not good for someone who is raising a family.”
But just think of all he’ll derive out being alive at 105, which he said he plans to do as his great-grandmother lived to be 106.
Although Guarneri had a four-hour surgery last week to help alleviate pressure on a nerve above his right temple, and he lost part of his eyesight 10 years ago (he only has peripheral vision), he still rides his bicycle through the mobile home park.
Everything comes into focus as one of his friends describes what makes this man stand out: “To me, Joe is an inspiration to us all,” said neighbor and friend Sally Bartlett, 71, who is the social director of Casa Serna and helping to put the finishing details on his party. “As long as he’s out there and riding his bike, it makes me feel younger and good to know that I may live another 30 years.”
Guarneri added that he is grateful for his friends, many of whom live in the mobile home park and take him out for lunch or dinner at nearby restaurants.
In fact, he said he currently is living with friends after a water main broke under his mobile home, causing heavy damage, which currently is being reviewed by insurance companies.
But Monday will be a day to celebrate.
“I’ve had a lot of misfortune and a lot great times,” Guarneri said. “I love my family and friends. I have company here all the time, and I’m grateful for that. I just take life as it comes.”
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