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Ray Duckler

Ray Duckler: John Kuliga, 95, just keeps going and going and going

  • John Kuliga, center, plays with pool noodles along with classmates during his aqua aerobics class at the Concord YMCA on Friday morning. Kuliga works out at the YMCA regularly every week and has done so for 30 years. He turned 95 on December 21, 2012 and the staff at the YMCA threw him a birthday party to celebrate their oldest member. Children from the YMCA's preschool program stopped by to sing him happy birthday. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

    John Kuliga, center, plays with pool noodles along with classmates during his aqua aerobics class at the Concord YMCA on Friday morning. Kuliga works out at the YMCA regularly every week and has done so for 30 years. He turned 95 on December 21, 2012 and the staff at the YMCA threw him a birthday party to celebrate their oldest member. Children from the YMCA's preschool program stopped by to sing him happy birthday.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • John Kuliga laughs while saying goodbye to his friends from his morning workout class that came to a birthday party thrown for him by the staff at the Concord YMCA on December 21, 2012. Kuliga works out at the Concord YMCA regularly and has done so for 30 years. He turned 95 on December 21, 2012 and the staff at the YMCA threw him a birthday party to celebrate their oldest member. Children from the YMCA's preschool program stopped by to sing him happy birthday. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

    John Kuliga laughs while saying goodbye to his friends from his morning workout class that came to a birthday party thrown for him by the staff at the Concord YMCA on December 21, 2012. Kuliga works out at the Concord YMCA regularly and has done so for 30 years. He turned 95 on December 21, 2012 and the staff at the YMCA threw him a birthday party to celebrate their oldest member. Children from the YMCA's preschool program stopped by to sing him happy birthday.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • John Kuliga works out at the Concord YMCA every Monday, Wednesday and Friday as he has done for 30 years. He turned 95 on December 21, 2012 and the staff at the YMCA threw him a birthday party to celebrate their oldest member. Children from the YMCA's preschool program stopped by to sing him happy birthday. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

    John Kuliga works out at the Concord YMCA every Monday, Wednesday and Friday as he has done for 30 years. He turned 95 on December 21, 2012 and the staff at the YMCA threw him a birthday party to celebrate their oldest member. Children from the YMCA's preschool program stopped by to sing him happy birthday.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • John Kuliga, center, plays with pool noodles along with classmates during his aqua aerobics class at the Concord YMCA on Friday morning. Kuliga works out at the YMCA regularly every week and has done so for 30 years. He turned 95 on December 21, 2012 and the staff at the YMCA threw him a birthday party to celebrate their oldest member. Children from the YMCA's preschool program stopped by to sing him happy birthday. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)
  • John Kuliga laughs while saying goodbye to his friends from his morning workout class that came to a birthday party thrown for him by the staff at the Concord YMCA on December 21, 2012. Kuliga works out at the Concord YMCA regularly and has done so for 30 years. He turned 95 on December 21, 2012 and the staff at the YMCA threw him a birthday party to celebrate their oldest member. Children from the YMCA's preschool program stopped by to sing him happy birthday. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)
  • John Kuliga works out at the Concord YMCA every Monday, Wednesday and Friday as he has done for 30 years. He turned 95 on December 21, 2012 and the staff at the YMCA threw him a birthday party to celebrate their oldest member. Children from the YMCA's preschool program stopped by to sing him happy birthday. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

Give him a couple of Miller Lites and a Celtics game on TV, and perhaps John Kuliga is good for another 95 years.

He’s the guy seniors, people in their 80s, want to be like when they grow up. He’s the guy with the shiny white hair, lots of it, the slender build and the never-ending smile, as warm and refreshing as the pool he uses three times a week at the Concord YMCA.

The Y’s oldest member, Kuliga lives in Hooksett after more than 30 years in Concord. He still drives to the Y. Three months ago he drove to Foxwoods to roll dice.

As Theresa Connor of Allenstown, nearly 80, told Kuliga on Friday after his brief birthday celebration at the Y, “You are my inspiration. Why do you think I keep coming?”

Kuliga has been coming for nearly 30 years, since his doctor suggested water resistance training after he underwent surgery to remove a growth on his lung.

He’s felt poverty during The Depression, the sting of battle during World War II, and the sweet innocence of town sports during the radio era, when semipro baseball and football were a popular form of local entertainment.

He’s also experienced the love of a good woman, in this case Renee, his wife of 64 years. “A wonderful woman,” Kuliga said. “She’s a pleasant person,

and she looks out for me.”

She’s been by his side since FDR lived in the White House, and while she wasn’t at the Y for her husband’s 95th, her presence was felt the day before, during a phone conversation.

When Kuliga struggled now and then with snapshots from the past, Renee was close by, ready to jump in, easily heard in the background.

“At a Grange hall in Concord,” she said, when Kuliga paused to think where they’d met.

“On the corner, near the old Monitor building,” she told us, referring to where the couple once lived.

“There were no jobs,” she said, after Kuliga had been asked about working as a kid.

He and one of his sisters pulled a wagon more than a mile, to Manchester’s south end, to pick up food handed out by the government after the Stock Market crash of 1929. Potatoes and carrots, mostly.

He retreaded tires that weighed more than him and delivered food by truck. But he credits his time in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Conway for building his foundation of strength and health, the one we see today propelling him with ease and grace at the Y pool.

While in the CCC, he dynamited dams, extended the Kancamagus Highway, overpowered hitters with his fastballs on the town team and helped support his family.

“I worked hard and the food was good and there was fresh air,” Kuliga said. “For me to grow up inside of two years, that was one of the greatest things for me. It helped my health, all the way down the line.”

That line included fixing planes in Europe during World War II and settling on Blake Street in Concord with Renee and their son. He was a foreman at a medical equipment manufacturer in Manchester, while Renee worked her way from the filing cabinets to the administrative offices at Chubb Life.

And the Y?

When did you first show up there?

“You were 67,” the woman’s voice in the background said.

The director is Jim Doremus, who’s been at the Y for four years. “I want to be like him when I grow up,” he said, echoing the theme of the day.

Watch Kuliga at his aqua aerobics class, run these days by Jen Bonnett, and you’ll see a man who could pass for being in his mid-70s. He does his knee bends and pushups against the pool’s edge while Christmas music pours down from above. He noodles around with a pool noodle and never, ever, looks like he’s not having a good time.

“He’s always so happy, always smiling,” Bonnett said. “He’s a down-to-the-core good guy. And people are here to socialize, but he still does all the movements.”

After his 45-minute pool session, Kuliga changes into his jeans and moves into the lobby, where kids named Annie and Layla and Eli and Max, all 4 and 5 years old and part of a pre-school program, sing “Happy Birthday.”

Kuliga then sits in the lobby and reflects on everything from his love of Ted Willliams, to the historic floods of 1936, to the Battle of the Bulge late in 1944, to his $10 ticket for the 1975 World Series. He shows people his draft card from 1942 and a photo of him and three buddies, leaning against a car that looks like it came straight from a Humphrey Bogart movie.

He says he pops open the first of two beers each night at 8:30 and settles in front of the TV, ready for a ball game. He also mentions his morning workout.

“Sometimes I have a lot of pain, but I work through it,” Kuliga said. “I’ve slowed down a lot since I first started, but I still get through it pretty well. Today was a good day.”

A woman walks by and says something to Kulika, something about inspiration. Then a friend, 82-year-old Frank Taylor of Concord, walks by, too, heading out for the long holiday weekend.

“Happy birthday, John,” Taylor said. “Gonna be around next week?”

His question, everyone knew, was a mere formality.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

Legacy Comments1

Thanks for building "the Kancamagus Highway" where our family used to live at Loon Mountain in Lincoln, of having worked for Sherman Adams there back in 1969 at the then minimum wage of $1.50 an hour and so would have to have worked a full day for that 1975 World Series ticket. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGgoCm1hofM&NR=1&feature=endscreen for what 93-year old Charles Eugster has to say about being fit too in this 16:21 - minute video, seen: 24,126 times.

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