Sam “Pop” Derita met the woman who would become his wife on the day that would live in infamy — Dec. 7, 1941.
Though proudly and outspokenly Italian, Derita was dancing with a girl named Mary at a Polish dance hall in Baltimore that winter day. The music stopped when a young boy ran into the room and announced that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
World War II had arrived in the United States and life would never be the same for the Baltimore brickmason named Sam Derita, nor for anyone else of his generation.
Derita was 20 at the start of the war, but deafness in one ear would bar him from military service. Today, March 25, the Key West resident is 100 years old and celebrating with a party at the Southernmost Mansion.
The party invitations include historical facts about the year Pop was born. It was 1921. Warren G. Harding was president, a new car cost $325 and a gallon of gas was 26 cents.
“The pharmacist at CVS said he’s the oldest guy in their computer system,” Pop’s grandson-in-law, Bob Riccio, said. “They love him over there. Everyone loves him. He’s amazing.”
And Pop isn’t one to disagree.
“I was a good dancer until three years ago,” Pop said Tuesday, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, his “hair” perfectly in place for photographs.
“The jitterbug, the rhumba. Christ, I wish I could dance,” he said emphatically, throwing his slender arms in the air and breaking into a Mamma Mia song before drawing his audience closer for a dirty joke.
“I was good at everything. I could fix cars. And we used to build brick houses five stories tall in Little Italy in Baltimore,” Pop said, rattling off the street names where things were located and hefting into his lap a historic red brick stamped with “Baltimore Brick Co.”
Derita broke his hip the day after his granddaughter Nicole Riccio’s wedding three years ago. “He’s doing great now, but no more dancing,” said Nicole, a Key West ER nurse who lives on Terry Lane with her husband, Bob, and the grandfather she adores.
“He raised me. He’s the best. He goes wherever I go,” she said, looking at him with obvious devotion. “We’re a package deal. We took him downtown to Fantasy Fest two years ago and he got more attention than anyone. Two women got their picture taken with him, and he whispered to me, ‘I don’t think they had shirts on.’” (He was right and has the photos to prove it.)
Bob Riccio clearly cherishes his Pop-in-law as well, leaning close to speak clearly into his hearing aid, holding the old man’s hand to steady his mind when a century-old memory plays tricks and offering gentle reminders when words escape him.
“He was recovering down here with us after his hip, and we didn’t know whether he’d want to stay here in Key West or go back to Baltimore,” Bob said. “So when we asked him one day where he wanted to be, because we’d go wherever he wanted, Pop said, ‘I don’t know how to tell anyone, but I ain’t never leaving this here country club.’”
And he hasn’t. His family is happy to have him and grateful for the chance to give back some of what he gave Nicole throughout her life.
“His eyes aren’t great and his hearing was never good. That’s what kept him out of the military, but he’s still so vain,” Nicole said, nodding to his hairpiece. “He even lifts weights and sings all the time. We play Lawrence Welk for him. He means everything to us.
“He’s just really good at being old,” she said, laughing.