Brian Sullivan: Mike Calderella stood tall for 99 years
Think of your own life as a football field with each yard on the gridiron representing a year. How many yards would you like to gain? Maybe 70 or 80? That would be a successful run for many of us.
The final whistle blew on Mike Calderella's game this past week and it ended with the former Pittsfield High gridder just a yard shy of 100. Calderella, born in Lanesborough and a Pittsfield lifer, turned 99 on May 8 and to the surprise of many who thought me might go to 110, died peacefully before the month ran out.
I think he was the oldest living Berkshire County scholastic football player and it's just as likely he was the oldest living former Pittsfield High player. He graduated from PHS in the mid-1930s, where he played in the same backfield as the great Joe Woitkoski Sr., who went on to become a running back and an All-America punter at Fordham.
Rugged and active during his 20s and 30s, Calderella played semipro football at Wahconah Park for both the Pittsfield Golden Bears and the lesser remembered Asci Coal Heavers. He golfed, did some Golden Glove boxing and continued to bowl into his 90s.
He did some catching at the Common in the old City League. His older brother, Jimmy, also excelled at baseball and put himself through college in part with the money he made as a semipro ballplayer during the summer.
A diehard Red Sox fan, Mike was age 4 when the Beantowners won the World Series in 1918. He might have even remembered it, although I never asked. Talk about riding out the "Curse of the Babe." Calderella was on board for the entire 86 years. Wow!
Bowling is how I met Mike. I think he brought information into The Eagle's newsroom about a tournament he had won at the age of 90-something. It didn't take long for the two of us to become pretty good friends. He talked and I listened. I mean this guy worked at General Electric for 42 years and still had an active and healthy 34 years of retirement. If there was ever a book written that was titled "This is How You Do It," then Mike's way was how you did it. Maybe he should have written that book.
He lived on Walnut Street off Onota Street for years. His basement was a cross between a New York City boxing gym and an Italian winemaker's cellar. Boxing décor and smells mixed in with the berries. It couldn't get any better. He was kind enough to give me homemade bottles of "the grape" on two occasions. He had his own label and the finished product spoke of a vineyard genius.
I waited on one bottle until the night shift at The Eagle had ended. By dawn I was sitting on my front steps chirping with the birds. The second bottle, I believe, had me reaching for the moon without the benefit of a space capsule or rocket boosters. Houston, no problem here.
In his later years, he needed help picking the berries, and that bothered him. But he never lost the touch in the basement. He was a genius at so many things, including the mastery of many musical instruments. Mike, like so many of his ilk, seemed to be self-taught at the things he did so well.
He was fit his entire life. Sometimes at The Eagle he'd ask me to give him a good sock to the belly. So, I'd tap him. "Harder," he would say. I'd give him a pretty good shot, but the result was always the same: My hand hurt.
He had a knee replacement during his 90s and he'd yelp about that from time to time. He'd always say he was going to defy the doctor's orders and go bowling. "Go," I'd say. "Go and bowl. You know how you feel."
Mike was my hero. Who was I to tell him he could or couldn't do anything? Maybe you use doctors to help get you to 90, but you listen to your own advice after you make it to 90. I don't know who got away with telling Mike no about anything. I knew I wasn't the guy to try.
Mike will now join his wife, parents and the four brothers and three sisters who predeceased him. It's the curse to a long life that many exit the stage before it's your turn. But while here, it's the Mike Calderellas who provide inspiration, motivation and determinaton to so many others.
The stories he told he takes with him, and that's also a shame. Guys like Mike are walking and talking historical refererences and you hate to lose that kind of resource.
Mike looked so good in restful repose at the Dery Funeral Home last week that I thought he might sit up and ask me to belt him one last time in his sturdy midsection. I stood over him, fist clenched, just in case.
He was a one-of-a-kind guy who almost made it to 100 before being tackled with just a yard to spare. Knowing he's not in the game any more will be hard to handle for a while. But having known him sure softens that blow.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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