July 16, 2007
By JOHN FLOWERS
BRISTOL — While his body doesn’t work as well as it once did, Sam Svrcek’s mind — and his sense of humor, in particular — remain very sharp as he joins the country’s exclusive club of centenarians.
Asked on Thursday — the eve of his 100th birthday — how he has managed to live so long, Svrcek grinned, looked off into the sky, and replied matter-of-factly, “I gave up my pipe three years ago. Maybe that’s what’s helped me live longer.”
Many friends, family members and acquaintances were scheduled to stop in at Svrcek’s Elm Street home on Friday to congratulate him on his landmark birthday. The administrations of President George W. Bush and Vermont Gov. James Douglas have already sent warm wishes; their signed cards are included amongst a large black-and-white photo display in Svrcek’s living room that chronicles his ongoing odyssey through life.
Svrcek was born in Manhattan, N.Y., on July 13, 1907. Theodore Roosevelt was president of the United States. It was the year during which Oklahoma was admitted as the 46th state and the hapless Chicago Cubs won baseball’s World Series. A postage stamp cost 2 cents.
Svrcek recalled how he and his brother, John, attended Public School #25 in Flushing Heights, N.Y. The school happened to be located right next to a golf course, providing Svrcek and some of his classmates with some fun and spare change during some tough financial times.
“When (the golf course) needed a caddy, they used to call my principal and ask if any of the students could caddy,” Svrcek said.
The principal would pick the caddies according to discipline and academic achievement. In a move that would make some educational purists cringe in this day and age, the principal would allow top students to leave school early to caddy. Svrcek was one of the lucky few.
“It was a gift,” Svrcek said of the caddying privilege.
Svrcek parlayed his caddying into bigger things at the course. The golf pro at the course happened to be the legendary Gene Sarazin, who would go on to win many national competitions. Sarazin took Svrcek under his wing and allowed him to work in the course’s pro shop, polishing golf clubs and doing other odd jobs. Svrcek said the job netted him and his family some needed cash at the dawn of the Great Depression.
While Svrcek would enjoy golf as a hobby throughout life, he left the business as a young teenager. He said organized crime played a big role in golf during the early 20th century.
“In those days, golf wasn’t a clean business,” Svrcek said. “My mother asked me, ‘why do you want to be mixed up with gangsters?’ I had to agree.”
It was just as well because Svrcek found his true calling a few years later, when he was 16. He was offered a job with the New York Telephone Co., with whom he would spend the next 49 years — many of them as a pole climber.
In those days they didn’t have the bucket lifts that currently raise workers up to telephone lines. Svrcek and his colleagues were fitted with special spurs to climb up to the lines — in all kinds of weather.
“When there was ice on the poles, you’d have to knock it off while you climbed,” Svrcek said, pantomiming a swipe with his left hand.
He traveled throughout the state, going wherever the telephone company needed him to troubleshoot following storms and hurricanes, and lay what he called “bare copper wire.”
“I never got hurt,” he said proudly of his long career.
Svrcek continued to live in New York for a while after retiring from the phone company at the age of 65. But he and his late wife, Bertha, moved to Bristol during the early 1980s to be close to their son, William. The pair remain neighbors.
Bertha Svrcek died five years ago at the age of 92. They had been married for 72 years. The couple had two children, William and Evelyn (Rice). Svrcek has five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
He said he feels fortunate to have enjoyed a long, healthy life and retirement. He has been an avid hunter and bowler. Svrcek bowled a perfect “300” game in 1936.
Evelyn Rice, who was up from Pennsylvania last week for the birthday bash, said her dad’s personality and demeanor have contributed to his longevity.
“He’s enjoyed life,” she said. “He’s also a very accepting person, accepting people for who they are.”
Svrcek has eaten balanced meals and hasn’t really snacked a lot. He still socializes occasionally with a group of Bristol seniors that includes George Smith, Harland Wendell and Fred Jackman.
As the interview comes to a close, Svrcek offers another clue to reaching the age of 100.
“I’m not a worrying man,” he said.