The Fitzpatrick family, which has resided in San Clemente for 41 years, celebrated the birthday of its oldest member on Wednesday, Jan. 25.
Tom Fitzpatrick truned 100 years old and celebrated with a drive-by event in front of the Dorothy Visser Senior Center, followed by a small, private party inside. He’ll later have a larger family gathering of around 50 people this weekend.
Tom’s 59-year-old daughter, Carole Fitzpatrick, spoke with San Clemente Times to share part of Tom’s life story.
Born in Bayonne, New Jersey, Tom overcame a significant battle with pneumonia at the age of 5 and lived through The Great Depression, his residence being less than 15 miles from the center of New York City when the stock market crashed in October 1929.
“When he was a little boy, he would see planes flying over, and he really was interested in flying,” Fitzpatrick said. “He thought, ‘Man, I’d really like to do that.’ … There wasn’t a lot of money, but his dream was to fly.”
Tom took the opportunity to attend the technical high school in town as the first step toward gaining the necessary mechanical knowledge. He later got a job as a toolmaker at the manufacturer that would eventually be named the Westinghouse Electric Corporation.
After World War II began and the United States entered the conflict, Tom was concerned about getting drafted into the military for fear of contracting sickness while in the trenches because of his history with pneumonia.
Instead, he signed up for the Army Air Forces, according to Carole, and was thrilled that they accepted him.
“He trained, he went to school, and he learned to fly (Consolidated B-24 Liberators),” she said. “He never had to go overseas. I think the war ended just a couple of weeks before he was scheduled to go over.”
His time with the military afforded him opportunities to study at Norwich University in Vermont and at the University of California, Los Angeles, graduating from the latter school with a degree in business.
Carole described those years as some of the best times of her father’s life.
While at UCLA, Tom sought a place to live, as he didn’t have much money apart from the tuition that was paid through the GI Bill. He found an opening for a baseball coach at the Urban Military Academy, a prestigious all-boys boarding school in Hollywood.
Tom didn’t know a thing about coaching baseball, but he managed to secure the job. Immediately, he went to find a book about coaching the sport, learned how to do it, and found success in developing a good, well-run team.
The story was a microcosm of how he approached life, according to Carole.
“My greatest lesson from my dad is perseverance: ‘Don’t give up; try.’ If you don’t think you can do something, don’t say you can’t. Just try, and you’ll be surprised at what you can do,” she said.
Along with her brother, Thomas, who was two years her senior, the family had its roots in Whittier. Carole recalled that Tom was “great, lots of fun,” and enjoyed spending time with his children both in the pool at their residence and on their boat on Lake Powell near the Colorado River.
Another story came from time they spent at Bass Lake in Central California, where both Fitzpatrick children learned to water ski.
Thomas got the hang of it first, and with Carole struggling, her father said it was time to pack it in for the day.
“I said, ‘No, no, I gotta ski, I gotta do it today. (Thomas did); I gotta do it today,’ because I always wanted to do anything my brother did,” Carole said. “My dad, being the great guy that he is, took that boat around for another—I don’t know—two or three hours until I finally stood up on those skis.”
Apart from his personality as a father, Tom has always been known to be the “life of the party.” Carole added that he likes to have conversations, enjoys laughter, and getting people to have fun together whether or not they’re strangers.
Tom stayed active in building projects, including a front porch and a wall, up until his early 90s.
Now, he’s looking forward to listening to classic Frank Sinatra songs and punctuating a century of life on Earth this week with his family.