Long life of Joe Saranella of Vail runs from East Harlem to the High Country
World War II veteran has a long history with Major League Baseball players and cooking great Italian food
VAIL — Joe Saranella remembers it like it was yesterday. It was the summer of 1945 and he was aboard the USS Greeley steaming toward an American military base in China.
The World War II campaign in Europe was won and the Allied Forces were turning their complete attention toward invading Japan, known as Operation Downfall. The Navy Department experts who predicted this sort of thing estimated that there would be up to 4 million American casualties. Japanese casualties could reach 10 million.
Saranella was a member of the U.S. Army Tank Corps, which suffered tremendous human losses during the war. He and hundreds of thousands of others were likely to be among them.
But then the war ended. Saranella didn’t have to fight and didn’t have to die.
“We were in the middle of the ocean when the war ended,” Saranella said. “I was thinking and shouting, ‘I made it!’ “Ain’t that something?”
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Joe and Angelina
After war and risking death, Saranella went about the business of living. He was stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, before he boarded the USS Greeley for China. He was sightseeing around Washington, D.C., and he spotted Angelina, who would become his wife of 63 years.
“It was July 4, 1945, 2:30 in the afternoon in Washington, D.C.,” Saranella said.
If it wasn’t love at first sight, it came on pretty fast.
She was a Brooklyn native in Washington for three days, touring the Capitol with her sister who worked in an embassy. He and Angelina, “a wonderful woman,” married in 1947.
That was the beginning. They were together at the end. Angelina’s health was failing and Joe was at her bedside. At the end, Feb. 5, 2011, he was feeding her ice cream. She took a spoonful, looked at him, smiled slightly and died. It was snowing.
“We had a long, wonderful life together,” Saranella said.
He worked in a machine shop in the Brooklyn Navy Yards. Angelina was a seamstress for 44 years. They had two children, Joseph and Concetta.
Joseph was an attorney practicing in Dallas. In 1993 a car crash in Minnesota killed Concetta. Big Joe’s eyes still drift away when he talks about it, which he doesn’t do at much length or detail.
Little Joe retired to Vail and invited Big Joe to come with him.
Baseball and Italian food
Saranella has a long history with major league baseball players and cooking Italian food.
Saranella’s father was an Italian immigrant. Joe was born into a large Italian family in New York, the middle of nine children.
“We ate mostly fish. It wasn’t very expensive,” Joe said smiling.
Fast forward to Vail and Joe invited his good friend Louise Todd-Stoll to lunch and then canceled. Turns out baseball Hall of Famer and Yankee great Rich “Goose” Gossage came over and took her place. Goose lives in the Rocky Mountain region, occasionally golfs with Saranella’s daughter-in-law and knows Joe. Joe cooked pasta and meatballs.
“Joe told me, ‘Goose Gossage ate your lunch,’” Louise said laughing.
“Was it good?” Saranella was asked.
“I made it, so you know it was good,” Saranella said smiling.
Besides cooking Italian food for Gossage, he is the proud owner of 5,000 baseball cards, including 12 Nolan Ryan cards. He has fan mail from Pete Rose and, as a kid growing up in East Harlem, saw Joe DiMaggio play 20 times during DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941. A bleacher seat in Yankee Stadium cost 55 cents. He walked 5 miles from his East Harlem home to the stadium.
“I walked so I could save a nickel,” Saranella said.
It’s easy and dismissive to say Joe works a room like a politician. He doesn’t. A politician wants something from you. Joe wants to meet you and wish you well. It makes him, and you, happy. His handshake is firm and friendly. So are his smiling eyes.
Louise, her husband’s primary caregiver, was attending an October 2018 Senior Spot event at Eagle River Presbyterian Church, a program about climbing Mount. Everest. She and Joe met and hit it off famously.
“Magic happens when the Vail Public Library, along with Eagle County Aging Services, and places of worship collaborate together,” Louise said.
They lost track of each other but kept looking. “Where’s Joe?” Louise would ask. “Where’s Louise?” Joe would ask.
Louise knew Joe lived in the vicinity of the Vail Golf Club, so she occasionally strolled around the neighborhood asking people, “Do you know Joe? He’s a World War II veteran.”
Finally last July they found each other at another Senior Spot event, this one about avalanche rescue dogs. Joe was sitting at a table waiting for a program to begin. Louise spotted him and quickly made her way over. When she rested her hand on the table, he reached over and placed his hand over hers.
“Where have you been?” he asked.
“And where have you been?” she replied smiling.
Saranella turned 96 on Nov. 9.
“I’ve had a good life,” he said.
Work is good for longevity. So is prayer.
“I pray every day,” he said.
Then his eyes twinkle.
“I pray at night, too.”