WEST WARWICK — At 100 years old, Albert DeSilva has led quite a life. From growing up as one of five brothers in West Warwick, to serving in World War II, and singing decades later in a barbershop quartet in Florida, DeSilva’s experiences are global and varied. And he remembers it all vividly.
“I wonder, sometimes, how it is that fate works,” DeSilva pondered aloud, as around him four generations of his family mingled during a birthday bash organized by his daughter, Carol Slezak.
He and his 97-year-old brother Richard DeSilva, of Coventry, are the two eldest of their parents’ five sons, and the only DeSilva brothers still living — Eddie, the youngest brother, died earlier this year at 85.
“It’s quite a thing that we’ve been able to live this long,” Richard DeSilva chimed in. “And we have a lot of fun together.”
The brothers sat beside each other Saturday, joking and reminiscing as they caught up with family members who’d traveled to Club Frontenac from all over New England to help DeSilva ring in his 100th year.
A current resident of St. Petersburg, Florida, DeSilva spent much of his lifetime in West Warwick. He moved with his family to Lippitt circa 1927, and, all these decades later, can still clearly picture his childhood in the Pawtuxet Valley.
“It was hard times,” DeSilva said, as he recalled that he and his brothers used to sift through garbage at the town dump, on the lookout for scrap metal that could be traded for pennies.
Despite the difficulties, however, the boys had no problem finding excitement.
“We had a lot of adventures,” DeSilva said, reflecting on his youthful antics. “We’d see things in the movies every so often and try to replicate it, ourselves — build rafts, go up and down the river.”
One day, DeSilva said, he and one of his good friends fashioned a diving helmet out of an old water tank. DeSilva was the first to try it out, fearlessly hopping into the Pawtuxet River with the contraption over his head.
“I went down in about 10 feet of water, right to the bottom,” DeSilva remembered. “We would try just about anything.”
After years of hard work in local mills, DeSilva’s parents in the mid-1930s opened a grocery store in Lippitt called DeSilva’s Market.
And in 1941, DeSilva was drafted into the Army.
“I spent a little over two years in the South Pacific,” said DeSilva, who worked as a radio operator during the World War II Battle of Guadalcanal. “First port of call was New Zealand, and that was a beautiful country.”
Across a table at the party, DeSilva had neatly arranged a selection of WWII-era photographs: an image, curled at the corners, of himself as a young soldier, standing in the Solomon Islands outside a bomb shelter his unit had dug; a black-and-white picture of him and a local girl he dated while stationed in New Zealand; one of him sitting in a command car.
“And there I am as a young man,” DeSilva said, picking up a weathered portrait of himself at 24, dressed in his military garb. “I don’t even know who that is.”
DeSilva loves to share his memories of the war, and spent much of Saturday’s party regaling partygoers with the stories behind each of his photos.
Some of Slezak’s most fond childhood memories, in fact, are of her father sitting each night at her bedside, recounting anecdotes from his time overseas.
“It was just very warm,” Slezak said. “It was nice to have that.”
Those storytimes are just some of the many moments that stand out to Slezak when she thinks of her dad. In another memory, DeSilva was driving his wife Rhea and their two kids in the Studebaker to California.
“I remember him getting frustrated with my mom because she couldn’t read a map,” said Slezak, who was around seven years old at the time. “At the hotel at night, he’d show me how to read it, then I’d have to sit shotgun.”
That road trip was one of several over the years.
“He always took care of us and showed us adventures,” Slezak said. “I just got to see things that, when I was growing up, you usually didn’t get to see.”
DeSilva moved to Florida in 1991, shortly after divorcing Slezak’s mother. DeSilva had always loved Florida, having spent time there during the war, and he knew one day he’d like to return.
“I always wanted to go back,” he said, “so as soon as I had my freedom I went back, and I’ve been there ever since.”
DeSilva remained single for 10 years following his divorce.
“Then I met this lovely lady from Indiana,” DeSilva recalled meeting Betty Mashino. “I asked her to move in with me, but she’s old fashioned and didn’t want to do that, so I had to marry her. But it worked out fine.”
DeSilva and Mashino spent 13 years together, until Mashino’s death in 2015. The two had belonged to the same chorus, performing at various nursing homes and churches near their home in Florida.
“We had a lot of fun,” DeSilva said of their time together as members of the Fun Chorus of Englewood. “That was really great. I miss that a lot.”
Singing has always come easily to DeSilva, who also spent some eight years as a tenor in a barbershop quartet. Except for occasionally playing the guitar, though, he was never very interested in learning instruments.
“I can remember my mother asking me one time if I’d like to learn to play the violin,” DeSilva recalled. “I was about 10 years old, and I said, ‘come on, ma, that’s for sissies.’”
Although he no longer sings formally, DeSilva still enjoys being an audience member for choir performances.
“He sits real close,” Slezak said, “and sings his heart out.”
As DeSilva mingled Saturday, his guests marveled at his quick wit and vivid recollections.
Slezak figures her dad’s longevity and good health can be attributed to his daily routine and efforts to maintain a social life — he even has a Facebook account, although he doesn’t post much to it.
“He’s always concerned about scams,” Slezak said with a laugh. “He’s worried about being taken for a ride.”
DeSilva, meanwhile, sees his secret to longevity as being threefold.
“First of all, you have to start off with good genes,” he said. “I have an aunt who lived to be 102, so the genes are there.”
The second piece of it, DeSilva said, are his “considerable blessings.”
“But I say it’s good luck,” he continued. “I’ve had my share of diseases through life, and I’ve been tremendously lucky, in that I didn’t get a disease that would kill me.”
Whether his routine, his luck, or his genes are to thank, it certainly can’t hurt that he’s been surrounded for the last century by family members who adore him.
“He’s my rock,” Slezak said, as her dad stood at a table nearby, chitchatting and taking selfies with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“We didn’t have a fancy life,” Slezak continued, “but we were safe, and we were cared for.”