BRICK – Joe Vetere called May 22 one of the greatest days of his life, which is saying a lot since it was his 98th birthday, and he was celebrating the event during the pandemic quarantine.
Family members planned a birthday parade for the World War II veteran, and other groups joined in on the celebration, which kicked off the Memorial Day weekend.
Vetere is one of 11 children, has four children of his own, plus eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Many of them drove from all over New Jersey to join the parade in cars decorated with balloons and banners.
Several fire trucks from the Laurelton Fire Department, with sirens blaring, joined the drive-by in front of Vetere’s Princeton Commons house, as did three SUV patrol cars from the Brick Police Department. Mayor John G. Ducey was spotted driving his car, as well as Councilman Paul Mummolo, who is Vetere’s nephew.
Mummolo put in a call to the Brick and Jackson VFW to see if they wanted to participate, and they did. Some two dozen VFW members arrived on motorcycles and pulled up the rear of the parade.
“Uncle Joe is my mother’s brother,” Mummolo said. “When I was a kid, we spent every Christmas Eve with them at their house.”
He said his uncle played golf until about two years ago, and only stopped because he could no longer see the ball.
“God bless him, he remembers everything,” Mummolo said.
Vetere’s family was afraid he would miss this birthday since he had congestive heart failure in recent months, and was even placed in hospice.
“He has nine lives,” said his daughter, Lisa Shade, who led the parade with her boyfriend in his classic car.
“We had a scare this year but he bounced back,” she said. “He’s had other health scares, but this was the most serious one.”
Vetere has been living with his son, Joe Jr. for the past six years. Lisa had come and decorated the front yard with balloons and banners, but her father didn’t know about the parade.
“He’s still smiling, two days later; he had a great, great time,” said Joe Jr. two days later. “He rested good the next day.”
Vetere is a true American hero who served in the Army during World War II. He was drafted at the age of 20 and served in North Africa, France and Belgium.
He met his wife Mary when he returned and said it was “love at first sight.” The couple had two sons and two daughters together and lived in Nutley until she died in 2006 after 54 years of marriage.
“We come from a large Italian family with lots of cousins, nephews and nieces, and my dad was always the parent who played with all the kids – they crowded around him,” Lisa recalled.
“Even with the newest generation, he was the Pied Piper. He gave us all a strong set of moral values,” she said of her father, who is first-generation Italian. He is also the only surviving sibling of his 11 brothers and sisters.
She said the secret to her father’s longevity is having at least one glass of homemade Italian red wine every day.
In a phone interview after his birthday parade, Vetere said he was very moved by his drive-by celebration.
Recalling his time in the Army, Vetere said he worked with the Army Corps of Engineers.
“We would come into town after they wrecked the place, and we fixed it,” he said.
He served for three years and in 1945, after the war he came home and worked for Lionel, the IRS, and then he took exams to become a CPA.
“I’m feeling pretty good now,” he said. “I have nurses and nurse’s aides coming around. Everyone’s saying they hope I have a few more years, but I don’t know,” Vetere said.