Best Centenarian - 2002
In 1917, Brooklyn-born Al Ross decided to join the U.S. Navy when he was barely 16 years old. As a seaman first class during World War I, he patrolled the Atlantic coast from Norfolk, Virginia, to Jacksonville, Florida. When the war ended, he worked as circulation manager for a publishing company. After the stock market crash of 1929, he started the Albatross Chemical Co. in Long Island, New York, which is now headed by his daughter and other family. As a member of the Jewish War Veterans, he worked in 1938 to break up street-corner meetings of Nazi, Communist, and fascist teen organizations. A few years later, as the United States entered World War II, he cracked down on draft dodgers as an investigator for the Selective Service. Ross had been coming to Florida since 1927 and moved to the Sunshine State in the '40s with his wife, Edie, with whom he would share his life for more than 70 years. She succumbed to Alzheimer's disease four years ago. "She's a lovely girl," he sighs. Now an even 100 years old, the five-foot-tall, small-framed veteran still wears his original medal-covered uniform, giving speeches all over South Florida championing patriotism and educating the public about the importance of war veterans. Refusing to retire, he continues to work in public relations for the Palm Beach Daily News, a position he's held for 14 years. Ross has dedicated his life to patriotic causes and frequently dresses in red, white, and blue. "Veterans Day, by the way, is every day of the week, not just November 11," he stresses. "It saddens me that people don't ever think to say 'thank you' to a veteran. But the average person does not honor the veteran properly. If it wasn't for them, they wouldn't have freedom of speech or freedom of the press." The walls of Ross's Palm Beach condo are covered in accolades he's received from George W. Bush, U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, former President Ronald Reagan, and veterans groups. Among them: a certificate that the American flag was flown over the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., in recognition for his courage and bravery in WWI, a piece of wood from the USS Constitution during its restoration in 1974, and a letter from the Town of Palm Beach designating him as the town's first "Legendary Living Landmark." Ross, the last surviving member of Barracks 507 West Palm Beach WWI veterans group, starts reciting one of his speeches, which he says brings people to tears and has earned him a medal from the Navy. There are "172 veteran hospitals overloaded with veterans who are blind, deaf, and in wheelchairs. If you look them over, you'd think they were panhandlers. This is because they served and went through hell. That's why you never hear what veterans' duties were in the wars. When they go to bed at night, they have nightmares," he says. "You know what it is to lay on the ground trying to kill the man in front of you or avoid being killed yourself." He shares with his audiences the origin of the song "Taps" and the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance. So how does Ross feel about reaching his age milestone? "It isn't so good to get into your 100s. It's good that you can reach 100, but it's bad, because you have to give up golf, swimming, biking, and tap dancing -- all the things that I love." He doesn't necessarily give away his secret to longevity. "Oh, I'm happy. I don't have any enemies. I have loads and loads of friends. It all comes out in the work I do," he says. The only thing he regrets is not buying Florida land when it was $1 an acre. Even with a lifetime of achievements, medals, and honors, he still remains modest. "I've been asked to write a book. I say, 'Who's interested in just a little guy from Brooklyn?' But they could make a movie," he suggests.