Battle survivor enjoying heaven on earth
Michael and Janet Scioli surround their adopted WWII vet Paul Mathews at his 100th birthday party. Photo by Linda Wiggins
Adoption before the age of majority is a rare and beautiful act for all parties involved, but adoption in the advanced double digits? Priceless.
World War II veteran Paul Mathews celebrated his 100th birthday Jan. 16 surrounded by four generations of family members and a close network of friends. The surprise party was organized by his “adoptive daughter” Janet Scioli of Rockledge.
“We invited Paul into our home for a two-week visit, and it went so well, he asked if we could make it permanent,” Scioli said. She and her husband, Michael, accepted, hosting Mathews in their home overlooking the Indian River Lagoon. Whether from the big bay window in his room or on his favorite bench outdoors, Mathews takes in the beauty of the waterfront frequented by dolphins and manatee, and also greets passersby who walk their dogs, bike ride or jog. He readily admits it is heaven on earth, and not just because of the view.
“I couldn't ask for a better place or better people to take care of me,” Mathews said. With no biological children, after his wife died in 1997, Mathews eventually outlived all his blood relatives, except for a sister up North and some nieces and nephews scattered far and wide.
And while his life is accentuated by the love of his adopted family, the length of it increasingly bemuses him.
“I was drafted in 1940, and the last place you wanted to be assigned was Army infantry. Their life span on the battlefield was measured in minutes, seconds, even,” Mathews said. “But when I went to battle in 1941, that's exactly where they put me. I quickly became commander of a tank destroyer with a crew of five men. I had so many close calls; I was injured, got the Purple Heart. There is no greater satisfaction coming out of a combat battle than to feel the satisfaction of survival. That I survived, and that I have existed so long, is amazing to me. I always felt I was guided by an angel on my shoulder.”
He met his current “angel” in the Martin Andersen Senior Center Chorus, which he founded 35 years ago with others who have since passed. The chorus travels to 14 nursing homes and senior centers throughout Central Brevard singing the old-time favorites that thrill residents who may no longer be able to speak, but tap their toes and sing along with every word to the songs.
“We put Paul right out front. He's a strong soloist,” Andersen Chorus director Rita Rhinehart said. “He is amazing and everybody loves him.”
In addition to the birthday dinner, Rhinehart, Scioli and other chorus members created a special musical performance, rewriting and passing out copies for a sing-along, lyrics like “For Paul's a jolly good fellow, He's sweet as a bowl full of Jello,” “You're a Grand Old Man,” and Ain't Paul Sweet,” reserving a solo spot for Mathews.
The more than 75 guests at the Cocoa-Rockledge Garden Club event included many of the Sciolis' children, grandchildren, a great grandchild and another due this month. The eldest daughter, Donna Hink, flew in with husband Gary from New Jersey. Hink and her youngest sister, Michelle “Shelly” Iuculano, greeted and served guests, the dinner catered by Iuculano's husband, Sal. The Sciolis' son Rick planned the selection of old-time and patriotic music.
“We call Paul our adopted grandfather,” said Hink, who brought banners decorated by her students, including a time line of Mathews' life beginning with his birth during Woodrow Wilson's presidency.
“It's a lot better than a nursing home, and he has so much to share with all the kids from four generations.”
Michael Scioli and Mathews share a passion for football, baseball and NASCAR racing. Mathews knows all the players and stats, past and present. Rick Scioli lives across the street and visits with Mathews frequently to discuss the matters of the day.
Home life would not be complete without a cast of friends of the family, like Judy Aijala, who visits weekly to challenge Mathews to a game of Scrabble.
“Paul's very sharp. I may get in a win once in a great while, but mostly he wins, and I mean I get slaughtered.”
Andersen Chorus member Karen Young said she hopes the practice of adopting elderly or frail persons catches on, adding that frequently even if a person has close relatives, a live-in option may not be a good fit for personal reasons.
“A number of my friends never got married, never had children, and they are getting on in age, and I wonder what will become of them,” Young said.
Mathews never has to wonder about that.
“I've told Paul I will be with him until his last breath,” said Scioli, who also is a member of her church choir at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Rockledge. In lieu of gifts, donations were requested for St. Mary's Helping Hands Foundation.
“I am his shepherd.”
For more information on the chorus at the Martin Andersen Senior Center, call 321-631-7549.
Combat can color a vet's life forever
Like Paul Mathews, time spent on the battlefield often defines the rest of a veteran's life, whether it was a career, a traditional four years or a reserve deployment spent in harm's way.
Survival on the battlefield, in many instances by a hair's breadth, colors many pages of Mathews' memoirs, currently unpublished and created just for his adopted family's benefit after taking a creative writing course. Mathews read a poem he wrote in 1987 at his 100th birthday party two days after his Jan. 14 centennial. It speaks about an annual fall reunion with his Army unit “brothers”:
When It Comes to September
When it comes to September
My mind seems to remember
Spider cobwebs in a cloudy maze
A jigsaw puzzle of a lingering daze
From a La-Z-Boy, jump to my feet
Ahead the reunion trip, and soldiers to meet
A gathering of warriors soon to take place
To honor the comrades of a human race
Many may wonder, what's it all about
To see old soldiers embrace and shout
We are happy for each other
Forged by battle like a brother
Give me your ear, as I try to recall
The last days where my buddy did fall
Pages of time grow dim and short
Soon my commander calls for my report
When it comes to September
My mind seems to remember.
— Paul Mathews, 1987