John Ferenz, who just celebrated his 100th birthday, would say the secret to a long life is music and staying active.
With a sly grin, he’d also add: good genes and a pacemaker. He’s on his second pacemaker.
Born on the Upper East Side of Manhattan during the waning months of World War I when Woodrow Wilson was president, Ferenz has lived an active life full of music, service to his country and most of all family and friends.
The World War II veteran bomber pilot, father, grandfather and pianist is looking back on his life, while planning his next gig from his home in Orcutt.
He called his childhood typical for the time, remembering living on East 66th Street in the Yorkville neighborhood of New York City. He remembers visiting all of the neighborhoods and people that made up the Big Apple.
“My parents came from Czechoslovakia. Like everyone else, they settled near people that were similar and spoke the language," Ferenz said. "There was always a church on the corner and you’d walk a few blocks and you’d come to the Irish church then a few more blocks was the German church.”
He attended Catholic schools while growing up in New York and it was there he was exposed to what would become a lifelong passion.
“I came home one day from school. I’m maybe 10 or 11 and my mother said, ‘The nuns are giving piano lessons and you are going.’ What did I say? ‘Yes, Mom.’ That is how it all started, those good ole nuns,” Ferenz said.
The piano became a large part of his life. He said he never stops learning and credits playing music as one of the things that keep him going. It may also be performing as he seems always to have a joke ready for any occasion and enjoys making people smile.
“The piano is a lot of fun. You can always do original things or you can imitate things. You learn as you go along. There is no magic wand,” Ferenz said.
He names Sir George Shearing, a British jazz pianist who was blind, as one of his influences, but also keeps up with current musicians.
“I like Diana Krall now,” Ferenz said with a smile.
After high school, college, his time in the military and through his career selling scientific supplies and glass, he continued playing the piano. He played with different groups and at many different venues.
“I was a club date musician,” he said.
His son, John Ferenz Jr., has fond childhood memories of his father coming home from gigs and his mother hanging up his tuxedo, which smelled of cigarette smoke.
Ferenz Sr. has traded the smoky nightclub scene for the local retirement home circuit.
He is currently playing with the Spectacles Ensemble.
“We go to retirement homes. We play live music for them. They appreciate it,” Ferenz said.
“Here we are playing for these elderly people and I am older than all of them.”
Along with the piano, another life-changing event happened when he was a young man: He went to war.
He was 21 years old when World War II broke out in Europe and 23 when the U.S. entered the conflict.
His service started a year later. He served from 1942 to 1945, flying 35 missions as a B-24 bomber pilot.
“My first mission was Hamburg. It was really a baptism by fire,” Ferenz said.
He recalled the skies during his first mission as, “perfectly clear not a cloud in the sky.”
Those conditions didn’t last long.
“As we got closer, we saw pockmarks in the sky. As we got closer, we saw they were anti-aircraft shells exploding waiting for us to get there,” Ferenz said.
Another mission he flew was during an important fight for the war effort -- the Battle of the Bulge.
“That was where Gen. Patton was on the ground and couldn’t move. Our job was to try and move them out of there,” Ferenz said.
During his time in the air during World War II, he said he saw a lot of his fellow pilots and crews take heavy damage and many didn’t return.
“We were just lucky. Every mission I came back from there was major damage,” he said.
“The B-24 was not an easy plane to fly.”
After his time in the European Theater, he flew transport missions over the Pacific.
“One of our missions was to fly into Japan to take out our wounded people from hospitals there and try and bring them back to the States for rehabilitation and treatment. Most of them were in no shape to make the trip. A lot of the times we just had to leave them there and go back,” Ferenz said.
In his Orcutt home, Ferenz's service medals and awards are nicely framed, not far from his piano.
Looking forward, he plans to continue playing music as long as people will listen. He also plans to spend time with family and friends.
On Sunday, his son and daughter and their families along with friends he’s met here gathered to celebrate his milestone birthday at the Santa Maria Inn.
“The people here are always very friendly and they check on me all of the time. I couldn’t ask for better neighbors,” Ferenz said.
Though he is now a centenarian, he isn’t slowing down.
“I’m glad they invented the pacemaker. I need a walker and I can’t fall down or I will break something, but I am still going,” Ferenz said with a smile.