WELLFLEET — Joseph Pellegrino, the World War II veteran, former selectman, and builder who turned 100 on July 4, can recall the milestones of his life with striking accuracy.
Aug. 4, 1938 was the day he met Irene, his wife of nearly 66 years. Dec. 12, 1942 was the day Joe and Irene married at the American Legion Hall in Wellfleet. He was Catholic, she was Methodist; they had to forgo a church.
June 30, 1944: That’s when Joe set sail from New York Harbor to Naples, Italy as a supply man with the 15th Air Force of the U.S. Army after being drafted in April 1943. “For three full days, I was seasick,” he says, summoning the past from a comfortable armchair in the family home he built by hand more than 75 years ago.
Later, Pellegrino rattles off the birthdays of his four kids: Tom, who was born while Joe was overseas, Joe Jr., Norman, and Marie. He has four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Pellegrino was born in Cambridge, the sixth of eight siblings. His parents spoke Italian with the first five kids, but by the time Joe came along, the Pellegrinos were American citizens, practicing their English — a frustration for Joe when he found himself stationed in Italy during the war.
He met Irene, a Wellfleet native, when his next-door neighbor, Louis Morea, took him to the Cape for a week’s vacation in August 1938. Irene was Morea’s cousin. She was 14 and Joe was 15.
“It was love at first sight,” Joe says. “Bam. She’s the girl for me.”
For the next two years, Joe and Louis hitchhiked from Cambridge to Wellfleet nearly every weekend so that Joe could see his girlfriend. “Rain, snow, sleet, or hail,” Joe says, “we were there with our thumbs out.”
The two were married before Joe was drafted. He remained in the service through 1945. He was in California that August, preparing for deployment to Okinawa, when the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb. After being discharged, he returned to Wellfleet and was reunited with Irene and baby Tom at Irene’s parents’ house.
In 1947, with a $4,000 GI mortgage, Joe built the family’s main house at 10 Cove Road, now occupied by his daughter Marie and her wife. Later he built the adjacent wing where he lives now. He learned his trade working with local builders, including Irene’s father, until he struck out on his own in the early 1950s.
The Pellegrino household, Joe says, was just the second in Wellfleet to have a television. All their neighbors and friends came over on Fridays and Saturdays for the weekly specials.
From 1967 to 1970, after a stint on the zoning board of appeals, Joe served as one of three Wellfleet selectmen, cajoled by local political dissenters into running against a candidate put up by town godfather Charles Frazier.
“I enjoyed it, but it took a lot of time away from my job,” he says. “My wife wasn’t very happy.”
When his kids were young, Joe gave his time to a long list of community pursuits, coaching the local Little League team and guiding the Wellfleet Boy Scouts.
Every year, he would sell American flags before the Fourth of July parade, netting about $800 for the American Legion on his own birthday.
“I had plenty of energy then,” he says.
Even as a centenarian, Joe keeps busy. He used to have a bountiful backyard garden where he planted tomatoes, corn, radishes, lettuce, cucumbers, and three kinds of squash. “It’s a jungle now,” he says. But with help from his son Norman, he’s growing two tomato plants at the front door, which he waters every other day.
A few years ago, the post office installed a mailbox in his front yard, which he walks to and from, supported by his cane.
He also tends a bird feeder, perched by the living room window closest to his armchair. He has to go outside to change the water, but he has a work-around for restocking his signature feed mixture: he soaks two slices of white bread — it’s only for the birds; he prefers Italian bread — in water and mashes them up, then mixes in bird seed. The final touch is suet cake, which he grates in with a knife.
“I end up with what I call a concoction,” he says. “I open the old window, and out it goes. My worst problem is the squirrel. I figure, he’s God’s creature — he’s gotta eat. But he raises hell with my bird seed. Eats it up in a hurry.”
After getting the mail, changing the water in the birdbath, and watering the tomato plants, he says, “I’m cooked. But I can sit and talk all day,” he adds.
Indoors, Joe is well stocked with word searches and 300-piece picture puzzles. A lifelong Red Sox fan, he keeps up with all the games whether it’s a winning season or a losing one. And when Tom Brady abandoned the Patriots for Tampa Bay, “I cried,” Joe says.
He also receives visits and support from his family. The fact that his four children all stayed in Wellfleet in homes that Joe built is “very gratifying” for him.
On June 20, the Wellfleet Select Board voted unanimously to honor Joe Pellegrino, “an exemplary Volunteer, Resident and Human for the Town of Wellfleet.” The town wanted him to serve as marshal in this year’s July 4th parade, his daughter-in-law Linda Pellegrino says, but he was already booked that day for a birthday party.
Among the secrets to his long life: he doesn’t drink or smoke. “The last time I had a cigarette was back in 1944 over in Italy,” he says.
The family lost Irene in 2008. And Tom, their eldest son, died on May 9 at 78. Joe has outlived all his siblings and many friends.
“I thank God every day for keeping me here,” Joe says. “When he wants me, he’ll call me.” At that point, he figures, “I’ll be reunited with my wife and my son, spiritually.” That is, “if you believe in spiritual life, life thereafter, hereafter — whatever.” He’s not sure, he says. Better to live day by day.
“You think about things like that,” he says. “You try to find an answer. But there is no answer.”
There’s nothing particularly special about turning 100, he says. “The best part of it, really, is being alive.”
Editor’s note: The house on Cove Road that Joe Pellegrino built in 1947 is occupied by his daughter, Marie, and her wife — not her husband, as was reported in an earlier version of this article, published in print on July 6.