Humility and a vodka martini: Local centenarian has the answers

Coastal Point • Tyler Valliant: Reine Jesel recently celebrated his 100th birthday, surrounded by friends and family at this favorite morning coffee joint, the Selbyville McDonald’s.Coastal Point • Tyler Valliant: Reine Jesel recently celebrated his 100th birthday, surrounded by friends and family at this favorite morning coffee joint, the Selbyville McDonald’s.On almost any morning in the Selbyville McDonald’s, a group of older men can be found laughing together over breakfast.

In the far corner this week, one white-haired fellow with bright eyes and a big grin enjoyed a special spotlight. After all, Reine Jesel had just celebrated his 100th birthday.

He still drives himself to McDonald’s six days a week for a black coffee to read the daily paper (no eyeglasses required). He won’t need to renew his driver license until he’s 105.

“I’m fortunate,” he said.

Most of his life was spent in New Jersey, working as a general contractor in the construction business. He was 85 when he and his wife, Shirley, moved to the outskirts of Frankford about 15 years ago.

So what’s the key to longevity? First, he said, his wife insists that he take vitamin supplements. (“I guess it’s working,” he mused.)

“The most important thing is we have a vodka martini every night. … And we just have one,” Jesel said. “Every evening around 4:30 or 5, we toast each other. We’ve been that way for years.”

When they were married, he and Shirley were both beginning their second marriages. Somewhat nervous about their 10-year age difference, they choose a simple ceremony at the minister’s house. But there was nothing to worry about, it seems. They’ve been married for more than half a century.

“My wife is going to be 90 [soon], and she acts and looks like she’s 60,” he said.

Jesel looks pretty good for 100, too.

Although his birthday was Sunday, Sept. 3, his breakfast buddies planned a Labor Day birthday party, featuring commendations from the Delaware General Assembly; cake and decorations courtesy of McDonald’s; more cake from his friends; and special appearances by two of his four sons.

What do his morning companions think about the birthday boy? They joked that anything they said wouldn’t be fit for publication. But the camaraderie was evident, and they complimented him as a sharp dresser who definitely doesn’t look like a centenarian.

“They’re all great. That’s all I can say. They’re very accommodating,” Jesel said.

When he came to Delaware, Jesel didn’t know anyone in the area. But he had attended a similar coffee group in New Jersey. So he took his newspaper to the Selbyville McDonald’s every morning until, one day, someone walked over and started talking about NASCAR.

Now, 15 years later, Jesel still hangs out with the guys every day. They said he’s a private man, but he was modestly willing to discuss his life.

His birth certificate actually lists him by the more traditional French name “Rene.” But he’s used “Reine” ever since childhood, when someone mislabeled his school records, probably mistaking an accent mark for another vowel.

Although his parents were from Alsace-Lorraine, they only spoke English at home. (Later, when Jesel realized he might have otherwise been bilingual in German or French, he said, he felt rather short-changed.)

While he was born in New York City in 1917, his family later moved to Philadelphia, then to Newark, N.J., with his father’s job at Breyer’s ice cream. Jesel’s first car was pre-owned, since most manufacturing plants in the early 1940s were dedicated to the war effort, not automobiles.

After a “normal childhood,” he married at a young age and was already a dad when the United States joined World War II. As a father and doing IBM computer work at a bank, Jesel was exempted from military service. But there was still much more part-time work to be done stateside, due to the labor shortage.

Having witnessed the earlier days of major tech company IBM, Jesel said he understands the leap that modern technology has made:

“When I was going in, we had a punch-card system, sorters and collators,” for processing checks one at a time. “And now they print checks out thousands at a time, and that’s incredible.”

Now there’s a smartphone in his pocket, with access to most of humanity’s knowledge.

“The changes have been fantastic, especially in the computer field. … When I was in construction in New Jersey, the first phone that I bought was $2,000, and you had to carry [it in] a little box. They charged for calls coming in and out,” Jesel said. “Now everybody walks around with it.”

Jesel said he is very proud to have seen his children grow up and earn their own achievements and awards.

“That’s one thing I’m grateful for — that I’m able to experience their successes,” he said.

One works in real estate; another is a mechanic for helicopters and airplanes. The other two are in the automotive industry. In between building parts for NASCAR and the National Hot Rod Association, they’ve also set speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Down the lineage, Jesel also has two great-great-grandchildren in Australia.

He said he feels fortunate. He’s happy in Delaware and has good neighbors.

But when asked about other life observations, “I think the politicians should change their attitude. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Jesel, adding that he was never very political himself. “What’s happening today — I’ve never realized anything like that could ever happen.”

Over the years, Jesel said, he’s led a normal life and hasn’t changed much.

“I don’t let things upset me,” Jesel said. “Take it with a grain of salt.”

Maybe the secret to longevity is humility, with a vodka tonic on the side.