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Joseph Cotroneo, 99, poses for a photograph in San Leandro, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013. Cotroneo will turn 100 on Dec. 19. (Anda Chu/Staff)

Of all the changes he's witnessed in his lifetime, Joe Cotroneo was saying, the evolution of air travel is one that still amazes him. Years ago, when he was a youth, his mother traveled to town by horse and buggy.

The recent recession from which the country is recovering doesn't compare to the Great Depression, he said. Times were so tough and money so tight that his father had to sell his ranch to get by.

And the health-and-nutrition craze that has swept the nation in recent years? It's never held much appeal. "I've never done a lot of exercise," he said. "I've done a lot of hard work."

A guy drinks in a wealth of experiences when he lives as long as Cotroneo. On Thursday, he will celebrate his 100th birthday in San Leandro, where he's lived for the past 56 years.

He never expected to be around this long, he said, even though he acknowledged that his father, Filippo, lived to 106. If there's a secret to longevity, he doesn't know what it is, other than taking each day in stride. Meet your challenges and move along.

As a first-generation Italian immigrant, he didn't speak English before he enrolled in school. A farmer's son, he learned to grow rhubarb on the family ranch in Elkhorn. (He still has more than a dozen blue ribbons won at the California State Fair.)

"I did everything -- I plowed, planted, cultivated," he said. "I'd get up at 4 o'clock, feed the horses and set the sprinklers."

As a newlywed in need of employment in 1940, he learned a trade at the Judson steel mills in Emeryville, where he rose from laborer to foreman during a 36-year career.


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"I ran a furnace melting scrap iron," he said. "The hard part was the heat. The metal is 3,000 degrees when it comes out. You're sweating and changing clothes all the time."

But those are just things Cotroneo did during his life. They are not what he's about. For that, you need to visit his room at the Pacifica Senior Living center, where more than two dozen family photographs surround him.

Those include images of his late wife, Ida (to whom he was married for 73 years), daughters Marjorie Amantea and Barbara Breves, four grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and a host of in-laws who are now part of a close-knit family.

"He just idolized my mother," Breves said. "He was the kind of person who always wanted to give for his family. It seemed like we had a lot more family time then than I see people have today."

Cotroneo said he was always lucky about his health, with one exception. About 40 years ago, he contracted septicemia, a blood infection that can be fatal. After two antibiotics failed to break his fever, his doctor told him, "There's only one more to try, and you're a goner if that doesn't work."

Breves said her dad never looked back. Until age 96, he was driving, living at home and was the sole caretaker for his wife, who was recovering from a stroke. It was only after she fell one day and he fractured his back picking her up that the Cotroneos sold their home and moved into a care facility. Ida died in 2010.

"I never heard him complain," Breves said. "He's a strong person. He's adjusted to everything that's happened to him in his life."

What's happening next is a milestone achieved by only 2 percent of the population.

It's a safe bet that he will take it in stride.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.