A 94th Birthday Celebration for Tony

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 At 94 years old, Woodhaven resident Tony Sabatino has outlived most of his family. But after coming to Rockaway by bus for about 15 years, he’s found a second family here. On Saturday, November 27, a day ahead of his 94th birthday, Sabatino’s Rockaway family of friends gave him a birthday bash to remember at Rogers.

In the party room decorated like an Italian café for the occasion, Sabatino wore a big smile as his Rockaway friends, turned family, got together to sing “Happy Birthday” to the man of the hour. “I’m lucky I’ve made it this far. I survived. I’m here, I’m laughing, I’m happy,” Sabatino told The Rockaway Times. “Tomorrow starts 95,” he said, holding the belief that his 94th birthday really starts his 95th year on earth.

For Sabatino, that all started on November 28, 1927, when he was born to an Italian family in Brooklyn. Sabatino would later call Queens home. And while he doesn’t live in Rockaway, over the years, Sabatino has found a home here.

While sipping a beer in a booth at Rogers, Sabatino explained that he first started coming to Far Rockaway in his earlier days, until he no longer had a means of transportation. But after many years went by and all of Tony’s loved ones went before him, he simply didn’t want to be alone. So he spent some time frequenting the neighboring Woodhaven House to find company. And one day, about 15 years ago, he decided to explore, and caught the Q53. With walker in hand, the handicapped man made his way to one of the first places he saw while getting off at the last stop on Beach 116th Street—the Kerry Hills Pub.

“He was a regular there,” Bernadette O Callaghan, who helped organize Saturday’s party said. “The owner, Carmel, treated him like her long-lost brother.” Tommy Henry, who deemed himself Tony’s first friend in Rockaway said, “He walked in to go to the bathroom, and I just started talking to him. Carmel would buy him a shot of Bailey’s and I would buy him a beer and we would just sit at the bar and talk. He had a lot of great stories. He’s just a really nice guy.” Tony would start showing up more often. And those at the Kerry Hills looked out for him.

“One time it was snowing, and they were closing the Kerry Hills because there was so much snow. And Carmel, who was in her 70s herself, insisted on taking him in the car and driving him all the way back to Woodhaven so he wouldn’t fall,” O Callaghan said.

In 2018, Carmel O’Sullivan passed away and the Kerry Hills closed shortly after. But Sabatino found Rogers. Then last year, Tony’s local haunt, the Woodhaven House closed permanently due to Covid. So he came to Rockaway even more, even though Rockaway’s own bars were temporarily closed. “He’s by himself. He lives alone, no kids, his wife or girlfriend died about 25 years ago and it seems he’s outlived everyone. He just doesn’t want to be alone, looking at four walls, talking to himself,” O Callaghan said. “That man still insisted on taking the bus to Rockaway and he would put a can of beer in his pocket and go to the Polish deli for a half a pound of ham and sit on the bench outside of Claudette’s. People started to know him from up and down the street."

Among them was Mike McMahon of Rogers. “He would come to Rockaway every day, even with the bar closed, and I would just let him in, and we’d sit in the backyard and talk. Like a lot of people, he’s just lonely and looking for some company. But he’s a fantastic man,” McMahon said.

So it’s no surprise Sabatino felt at home at Rogers. Since the bar reopened, he’s become a regular, coming down on the bus to spend a few hours there about five times a week, and making new friends who make sure Tony makes it home at the end of the day. One of those friends is Jerry Seward who makes sure Tony’s coat is buttoned up and helps him walk across the street to the Q53 bus stop. Occasionally, not wanting to end his day early, Tony will stop at Pizza D’Amore, where the staff has adopted him. “Even with the pandemic, they’d let him in and sit him down and they’d get him a square of pizza and cut it into tiny pieces so he could eat it. Then they’d go next door and get him a can of beer. They call him their grandfather,” O Callaghan said. “There is just so much kindness being shown toward this man. You don’t have to be related for people to be nice to you. He’s not even from here and everyone puts their arms around him and looks out for him.”

 O Callaghan is one of many who have embraced Tony. At the Woodhaven House, she says they would have a cake for him around his birthday on Thanksgiving. When the bar closed, she and her friend, Leslie Thornton decided to keep the party going at Rogers. “There’s been so much sadness this past year and so many people are sick or have died, so we figured this is a good excuse to do something,” O Callaghan said. “We need something happy to celebrate,” Thornton added.

With McMahon offering Rogers’ party room for the occasion, O Callaghan and Thornton started planning. Thornton took on decorating, deciding on an Italian theme with red, white and green balloons, cafe-style tables with checkered tablecloths and a board of photos with Tony and his friends. O Callaghan had food catered from Last Stop. “Carlos was amazing, he really gave us a deal. It really shows the community spirit,” she said.

On Saturday, Tony celebrated 94 years of life as he begins his 95th year with his friends from the Woodhaven House, the Kerry Hills and Rogers. And he could not be more grateful. “I lost my family, I lost everyone. These people are my family. They’ve been so kind to me,” he said. His secret to long life? “My philosophy is love everyone.”

And to keep the party going. O Callaghan told him, “You gotta make it to 100, but you can’t be 99. You gotta last six years ‘til your 100th birthday,” to which Sabatino said, “Will you still be throwing parties?” “I’ll still be throwing birthday parties,” O Callaghan said.

 By Katie McFadden

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