Francis Mariea was on his daily walk last year when a woman stopped her car to remark on how handsome he looked.
"How old is he?" the woman asked Mariea's aide, Julie Spears.
"101," Spears replied.
"I thought he was 70!" the woman exclaimed.
Mariea needled Spears when the motorist didn't drive by the next day. "You should have left it at 70," he quipped.
Mariea, whom everyone calls Uncle Fran, was at it again last weekend when 17 family members and friends from as far away as California helped him celebrate birthday No. 102 at I Bambini Italian Restaurant on U.S. 21.
When it came time to blow out the three candles on his cake, he said it wouldn't be a problem.
"I'm a real windbag," he cracked.
When he blew out only one candle on his first try, he said, "OK, I'm only half a windbag."
Mariea, as usual, had those around him laughing. He's always been that way, his family said, not to mention the best role model: the hardest worker, the most loyal husband, a man devoted to family and God.
"I love you more today than yesterday but less than tomorrow," read the sign to his wife of 66 years that hung in the kitchen of their former home in Potsdam, N.Y. His wife, Helen, died in 2003, years after they'd moved to Mooresville to be closer to family.
"He's always been a good, loving man," niece Joan Coombe, 68, said. "He's the treasure of the family."
Mariea used to live on East Center Avenue and walk a mile twice a day to a bench outside the practice of Dr. Tom Gross, where Coombe worked as a nurse for 16 years. The bench that Gross bolted down has a plaque that was dedicated to Mariea on his 100th birthday.
Mariea now lives on South Magnolia Street with his niece, her husband, Lou, 74, their daughter Jennifer Edwards, 43, and Jennifer's sons (great-great-nephews to Mariea), Ryder, 8, and Mason, 5. Mariea's great-nephew Jeffrey Coombe also lives in Mooresville and visits with sons, Jaxon, 7, and Jakob, 4.
Mariea attends St. Therese Catholic Church, says the rosary each day and prays nightly for those in need.
He stays up until 11 p.m. most nights and wakes up by 8 a.m. Legally blind, he loves sitting for hours listening to book tapes mailed to him by the N.C. Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped as a free service. He loves detective novels. Always on his lap is his Chihuahua, Annie, who likes to give him kisses.
Mariea doesn't know why he's lived so long, although a brother lived to 93 and a sister in New York is 94. Mariea smoked "no more than a pack a day" until he was 40, when he suddenly quit for no reason.
He said he doesn't dare dish out advice on how a person can live long. "I'm not that smart," he said. He never got past eighth grade, although he later obtained a high school equivalency diploma.
Life wasn't easy for Mariea as a teen. His father died when Mariea was 11. By 14, he'd joined a riveting crew in a shipyard and at 15 was a deckhand on a boat on the St. Lawrence River. He later managed a fleet of trucks for Wonder bread, worked for a firm that supplied materials to builders and, from 1966 until he retired at 65 in 1974, worked in the services department at what's now Clarkson University.
Mariea enjoyed grilled chicken, vegetables, decaf coffee and clam chowder at his party last week.
"A thank-you is so small," he announced. "It takes more than a thank-you to cover that."
"We love you, Uncle Fran," Jennifer Edwards answered, and everyone applauded.