Wednesday, June 16, 1999

100 today, and still going strong

Advice: Keep busy, have fun

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Gene Panaro talks with Grace Brado while riding exercise bikes as part of their daily workout.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        Before the clock strikes 11 this morning, Gene Panaro plans to blow out the candles on his birthday cake and get back to pumping iron.

        Gene turns 100 today.

        All the friends he has made during nine years of daily workouts at the Bridgetown Bally Total Fitness center will be there.

        Bob McLaughlin will rib Gene about “not croaking Tuesday night.” Mike Kappa will stop swimming laps to thank Gene “for keeping us all in line.” Liz Glandorf will wonder if “any of Gene's girlfriends will show up.”

        They better not, Gene likes to say. “They're all in the cemetery.”

        All except one.

        Grace Bardo will be there. At “39-plus,” she's old enough to work out with Gene and drive him around town. He calls her “my best friend in all the world.”

        To avoid the crowd at today's party, I talked with Gene and Grace on Monday as they worked out and had lunch by themselves. Their midday meal became this week's “Lunch with Cliff.” That's where I treat people to lunch at their regular eatery in exchange for hearing what's on their minds. Over a bowl of soup, I got an earful from a man planning to enjoy life in a third century.

        Gene was born in Cincinnati on June 16, 1899. Except for two years in the Army during World War I, he has lived his entire life and spent the entire century on the city's west side. Gene has definite plans on how he's going to usher in his third century on New Year's Eve.

        “We're going dancing,” he declared as he touched Grace's hand.

        “He likes the fast dances,” Grace said. “Unlike the other people with white hair, he doesn't go for the waltzes.”

        For habitual diners, it's hard to find anyone whose lunchtime routine is more fixed than Grace and Gene. Day in, day out, the widow and the widower eat the same thing at the same time in the same booth at the same place.

        “They really know us here,” Grace said as she pulled her car into the parking lot of the original LaRosa's in Westwood. “Before I got my new Honda, they'd see us drive by and our bowls of minestrone would be waiting for us on the table by the time we got into the restaurant.”

        Monday, the steaming bowls of soup were a little slow in coming. Gene used the time to reminisce and wisecrack.

        When the waitress showed up to take the lunch order, Gene looked at two guys sitting across from him — me and Enquirer photographer Jeff Swinger.

        “They're my brothers,” Gene told the waitress. “My older brothers.”

        The waitress nearly dropped her pen in Gene's ice water.

        After the soup arrived, Gene asked: “Why write about me? Why take my picture? I'm a nobody. Never did anything special. I just lived to be 100 years.”

        Gene is too modest. He's led a busy life.

        And he gained knowledge with his years, knowledge he is only too willing to share.

        Gene worked from the time he was 12 until he was 76. As a kid, he bused tables and waited on customers for 50 cents a night at a German restaurant. As an adult, he sold men's clothing in long-gone department stores and owned his own clothes shop in Camp Washington. At the age of 65, when most men are dead or retired, he started an 11-year career selling hearing aids.

        “Keep working, even if it's just three or four hours a day after you retire,” Gene said as he sipped his soup. “Like working out, it helps you stay young.”

        Gene volunteered to serve in World War I. “I was a dumb kid bored with life in Cincinnati.”

        He still has his dog tags. And he still knows his number by heart.


        Going into the Army, he learned how to fly “those newfangled biplanes. They asked us, "Boys, which one of you knows how to drive a car?'

        “If your hand went up, they took you in a hangar and taught you how to fly.”

        And with that rigorous course of training, the United States Air Force was born.

        Gene was married for 66 years to his wife, Hazel. She died in 1987. They raised three daughters, and all still live close to home.

        “My girls,” as Gene calls his children, gave him eight grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

        Gene met Grace in 1992 at Bally's swimming pool.

        “It was a pool pickup,” Grace joked. They were sitting poolside. Side-by-side. In silence. Her husband of 47 years had died in 1991. Gene broke the ice by asking: “Do you take naps?”

        They've been dating, dining and dancing together ever since.

        As his 100th birthday approached, Gene found himself being asked for his secret to a long life.

        “I don't have any secret,” he told me. “I have secrets.”

        And he gladly shared them:

        “Stay away from fast women. They'll kill you before your time.

        “Do the same with liquor. For the same reason.

        “Stay away from doctors. I took my annual physical every 10 years, and look at me. I don't take any pills. Or vitamins. I don't wear glasses or hearing aids. The doctors I went to are all underground.

        “Check out the pretty girls. Just look. Don't touch.”

        Gene takes a more active role when it comes to politics. He still votes.

        “Might as well,” he said. “"The right to vote is the only thing they give you gratis.”

        The first presidential election he voted in was won by Warren Harding. “An Ohio guy.” That was 1920.

        Born when there was a Bill — William McKinley — in the White House, Gene likes the current Bill in the Oval Office.

        “Bill Clinton must be doing a good job,” Gene said with a wink. “He's got all the young ladies lined up to meet him.”

        Of all the changes Gene has seen in his 100 years, the one that bothers him the most is the decline of laughter.

        “People don't laugh as much as they used to,” Gene observed. “They're more concerned with cheating someone than making them laugh.”

        Gene advocates filling life with laughter.

        “Joke around. Have a smile for everybody. Cut up with everyone.”

        Who knows, you could make people laugh. And prolong your life.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.