Park Talk Blog - Life at Age 101: A Conversation with Don O’Reilly

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Anyone who is 50 or older is welcome to participate in one of the Naperville Park District's drop-in programs at the Alfred Rubin Riverwalk Community Center; many of the activity groups meet weekly. The range of ages of the individuals attending these programs keeps growing. Recently, I had the privilege of talking with one of the oldest participants: Don O'Reilly, who is 101 years of age and still active in the community. He enjoys the weekly movies that are shown at the Rubin Center, attends Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, serves in the American Legion Post 43 and Judd Kendall VFW Post 3873 Honor Guard, visits veterans in senior living facilities and participates in yoga classes at the VFW. He was a member of the Community Radio Watch for many years and only turned in his uniform when he turned 100. He is a veteran of World War II, having served in England as a member of the Military Police in the United States Army Air Forces.

This photograph of Don O'Reilly is on the wall at the Mission BBQ restaurant in Naperville

50 Years in Naperville
Don and his late wife, Dorothy, bought a home in Naperville in 1959 and lived on South Wright Street in a friendly neighborhood full of children playing outdoors. Don and Dorothy had 8 children and enjoyed the camaraderie of the neighborhood, where they frequently welcomed new neighbors, had many block parties and picnics and spent time in the park at the end of the street, which now is known as Burr Oak Park. Don remembers that there was a shortcut through the woods to what is now Gartner Plaza.

Don now lives in a senior community in Aurora. In his words, "I sleep in Aurora, but my heart is in Naperville."

His Early Life
Born in Milwaukee in 1921, Don recalls how primitive health care was at that time. When he was 6 years old, he had an appendectomy and spent 10 days in the hospital. He missed many days of school in first grade because he and his siblings brought home all of the common childhood diseases, including measles, mumps, chicken pox, whooping cough and diphtheria. Sadly, he lost his 2-year-old brother to diphtheria.

When he was 22 years old, he left for military service in England in 1943, being transported in a convoy of 40 ships that zig-zagged across the Atlantic Ocean to avoid submarine attacks. Although he was in the Air Force, he was stationed on the ground. He said it took four men on the ground to support one man in the air. Each of the B-24 and B-17 planes had 4 officers and 6 enlisted servicemen on board, requiring 40 men on the ground. Those who did fly the B-24 and B-17 airplanes had a high mortality rate, flew with no heat and no air pressure control, and the waist gunners had no seats. A highlight of his service was the day in June 1944 when he was asked to guard a facility on the base. He did not know the purpose of the private meeting that was being held there until the next day, when he was told that the meeting was to review the details of the plan for D-Day: the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. He returned from his tour of duty on the Queen Mary, which is still docked in Long Beach, California.

Don is pictured with a motorcycle in 1944 after his return from duty

Keys to a Long, Healthy Life
Don attributes his long life partly to having a relatively safe job in his military service, where he did not experience the rush of adrenaline on a daily basis, and then maintaining a low-stress, interesting job following his service. After returning from the war, he worked at Western Electric and attended night school at Marquette University from 1950-1958, earning his degree in mechanical engineering. He relocated with Western Electric from Milwaukee to the Hawthorn works in Cicero, Illinois and worked there until he retired. He noted that as of 2023, his 41 years in retirement just surpassed his 40 1/2 years of service in his career and in the military.

He also is a survivor. He has survived 3 heart attacks, a quadruple bypass, an angioplasty and an aortic aneurysm. He still performs some of the cardiac rehabilitation exercises every morning and faithfully walked and jogged for many years on the Riverwalk.

Highlights of His Golden Years
Don is proud of his 8 children, two of whom are veterans, having served in Vietnam. He has 15 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. One of his grandsons is a World War II re-enactor and accompanied him to a reunion of his Air Force unit in England a few years ago. Another grandson served in Afghanistan. About 10 years ago, Don participated in an honor flight to Washington, D.C. He remembers that the flight took off from Midway Airport at 4:00 a.m., so he prepared for that early morning the week prior by getting up earlier each day. He received two bags of mail from elementary school children wishing him well and his family surprised him at the airport.

Last year, he enjoyed a flight with a former carrier pilot on a T-34 airplane and actually flew the plane for 12 minutes. He is looking forward to his next overseas trip, which will take him, along with his daughter and grandson, to England and Normandy with the Second Division. This will be the first time that he will visit continental Europe.

It's amazing to reflect on the changes that Don has seen in his lifetime--in Naperville and in the world. He is full of stories and is someone to know and respect in our community. He values the sense of community here and the way veterans are honored. He keeps up with technology, uses email and a cell phone, but sees the overuse of smart phones as a detriment, especially for kids.

You can read more about Don in this article in Positively Naperville, and a few photos of him are on the walls of Mission BBQ on Route 59 in Naperville. He often is part of the Honor Guard at community events and is a welcome participant at the Park District's senior programs. Thank you, Don!

This photo also is displayed at Mission BBQ

Learn more about Naperville Park District's Active Adults and Seniors programs
The weekly movies that Don enjoys are just one of many opportunities for those 50 and up who would like to connect with others. Learn more about our drop-in programs, classes and trips here.