100 Percent at 100 Years Old?
Turning the big three digits doesn’t suck for everyone. Norman Smith reaches the milestone on Oct. 12. The former La Jolla resident is still tack-sharp and — other than the knee arthritis that put him in a wheelchair — isn’t falling apart physically, either.
“It feels about the same as 90,” Smith says in his apartment at the Seacrest Village retirement home in Encinitas.
The secret to Smith’s longevity is most likely genetic; his mom lived 105 years. “I picked the right mother, what can I say?” says Smith, who was born outside Pittsburgh the year America entered World War I.
He adds: “I’m still enjoying myself.” Since a greater percentage of Americans is reaching this milestone than ever, about .022 percent, it’s a relief to hear that this is even possible.
Alone but not lonely
Smith’s childhood friends are all gone, but he still has family members and newer friends who either visit or e-mail. He’s a voracious reader of both fiction and non-fiction. And, like pretty much everyone these days, he surfs the Internet for far too many hours a day.
“I do what I like,” he says. This also still includes going out to dinner every Friday night with a couple who lives in Del Mar.
Smith lost his only wife, June, to Alzheimer’s five years ago. He misses her dearly, and keeps her pastel drawings and sculptures around to remind him of their 73 happy years together. They met in 1939, in the Brooklyn corned-beef joint owned by her dad, where she occasionally worked the cash register. Initially, she was not interested in Smith at all.
“It was a long fight,” Smith says as he stares at the framed black-and-white photograph of June he keeps by his bed. “But I won. She was a lovely lady. I was lucky, really lucky.”
Smith says he doesn’t wallow in the past, though, because he still has a present.
“I’m really looking forward to this party,” he says about his 100th birthday bash, where 50 guests are expected to cram the La Jolla house he still owns. They include his two sons — David, 71, and Larry, 66 — who are flying in to celebrate.
Early University City role
In addition to a wonderful marriage, Smith says he had a rewarding career that included being one of the three original incorporators — along with Irvin Kahn and Carlos Tavares — of University City. It was Smith who named its first streets, built on former Clairemont-adjacent farmland, in 1962.
“I remember Pennant Way,” he says. “That’s where the model homes were, so we had lots of flags.”
Smith was executive vice president of Kahn’s corporation at the time, a job he got through good old-fashioned nepotism. “He was my first cousin,” Smith says. “It was kind of like, ‘Let’s find something to do for Norman.’ ”
La Jolla ties
Developing wasn’t Smith’s first line of work; that was running a chain of liquor stores called Smitty’s. It’s what brought him to La Jolla for the first time. When asked the main difference he notices between The Village in the late 1950s and today, Smith replies that he could probably purchase a store on Prospect Street today. Back then, he says, “the owner wouldn’t sell to a Jew.” (Smith had to get two gentiles to front for him in a double escrow.)
One of the loudest La Jolla voices taking on its rampant anti-Semitism at the time belonged to Tavares, a devout Catholic of Portuguese descent.
“It wasn’t quiet disagreement,” Smith says. “He stood up against it. He also had other Jewish partners before Kahn and myself. He had two main issues: build more churches and be nice to Jews.”
Norman returned to a more-inclusive La Jolla in 1983, to build a home that June designed on Westway Drive. Larry initially only dropped his father off at Seacrest Village for a month of rehab following a hospital stay for back problems. Norman grew accustomed to living with assistance, though, just when a permanent one-bedroom opened up for $7,000 a month including kosher food.
“I’ve led a very interesting life,” Smith says, “I really have.” Smith says he has had some regrets along the way, but “the good thing about living to 100 is you forget what they were.”
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