Neal Vocke, a distinguished member of our community, has reached 100 years of age. When I spoke with him on his cottage porch on his daughter Linda’s property in Los Olivos, I was impressed by more than his age: There is something youthful about Neal.
Sure, his eyes are watery and red-rimmed, and he used his walker to get around, but the mischievous “kid” Neal once was growing up in Los Angeles, showed through his wrinkles; there is a sense of wonder he exudes. Kids benefit from having parents who recognize their children’s innate gifts.
He feels he’s an ordinary guy who managed to have extraordinarily good fortune, and credits his good luck to the people in his life that he’s loved and was loved by. There is also an appreciation for the family he was fortunate to be born into, considering Neal’s father recognized early on that his son had a gift for drawing.
At age six, his dad enrolled him in the Landon School of Cartooning; and whenever he was sick in bed, his mother stuck a pencil in his hand and said, “draw!” He’s been able to use and enjoy this gift his entire life.
Neal looked down at his hands as we spoke and said, “these hands helped me accomplish everything.” Looking around his porch, I saw paint brushes of all sizes neatly ready with an unfinished water color tacked to a drawing board. Those 100-year-old hands are still creating.
More than crediting his parents for his happy life, is the appreciation Neal gives to his late wife, Dorothy. Married for 78 years, he describes their relationship with pleasure: They were a perfect match, he says, and he knew it as a teenager.
Since Neal has been an artist his whole life, it is prophetic that he and Dorothy went to see the Disney masterpiece of animation, Fantasia, on their first date. But it wasn’t just the movie that put stars in his eyes; he recognized on this first date that he’d found his life partner. I asked him how he knew. He said that it just felt right. Fortunately, Dorothy felt the same.
They married before he went off to serve in the War in Europe, and although he got wounded and received a Purple Heart, he said that he had an angel on his shoulder as the wound wasn’t serious. But because he was transferred several times for medical treatment, mail took a long time to catch up with him and he didn’t learn that he was the father to a baby girl until well after his child was born.
Despite being away from his growing family, Neal had amazing opportunities to expand his art during his service, having drawn cartoons for various Armed Forces publications that included the Stars and Stripes. (An example of his cartoons is included.)
Finally, in 1946, Neal came home to his wife and daughter, Linda. They had another child, a son named Larry. For decades until his retirement, he worked in the art department of the Aerospace Corporation run by the Air Force.
When Neal and Dottie were in their nineties, their daughter and son-in-law invited them to live here in the Santa Ynez Valley. Dottie died in their little cottage a few years ago and Neal misses her greatly, saying the two of them lived for each other.
When I asked Neal if he had any advice about longevity, he replied modestly that moderation had nothing to do with it. He ate what he liked, he drank what he liked.
However, there are some things I’ll take with me from Neal Vocke: He exudes appreciation for all he’s been given and seems to be unafraid of death. He referred to this as, “going down the road a piece.” He believes there is something out there, but that “the destination is unknown.” When he spoke of this, it was with bemused curiosity. I firmly believe that Neal’s appreciation for life and endless curiosity are what keeps this 100-year-old a “kid”.