Ruth, Elizabeth, Angie and Theresa reside in Lehigh Valley. Lehigh Valley is in Pennsylvania. It consists of small picturesque towns with principal cities being Bethlehem, Allentown and Easton.
It’s 60 minutes north of Philadelphia, and 90 minutes west of New York City. The valley is between two mountains to north and south. Blue Mountain and South Mountain.
These beautiful four ladies have one more thing in common. They are all centenarians. They range in age from 100 to 105. They also share a common love of family, health and honesty.
“I always say, ‘Never lie or be mean to anyone.'”
-Theresa J. Roth, age 105
As seen in the March 2017 issue of Lehigh Valley Style.
How A Tiny Pennsylvania Town Held the Secrets to Long Life
[1 / 17 by Jim Deegan for Lehigh Valley Live]
Kathie Marinucci and brother Sam Nittle display a portrait of their uncle, Carmen ‘”Armie” Ruggiero, who was enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. When Ruggiero died Dec. 20, 2015, at age 103, he was believed to have been the oldest person alive from Roseto and one of the only remaining to have participated in a landmark study of mortality rates from 1955 to 1961 that came to be known as “the Roseto Effect.”
In spite of the dark suits and solemn hymns at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, there was a celebratory tone to the funeral for Carmen Ruggiero.
Ruggiero was born in tiny Roseto on Jan. 21, 1912, the year the Titanic sank and the year in which leaders incorporated the predominantly Italian-American borough near the tip of the Lehigh Valley.
The man nicknamed “Armie” died Dec. 20, a month shy of his 104th birthday.
At the time, he was believed to be the oldest living Rosetan and one of the last alive to have participated in a landmark 1950s study that tied good health and long life to the close-knit Italian family structure defined by the town.
Carmen ‘Armie’ Ruggiero at his 100th birthday party
Carmen “Armie” Ruggiero at his 100th birthday party in January 2012 at Stroudsmoor Country Inn in Monroe County. (Courtesy photo)
“Everybody firmly believed he had a long, good life and he went the way he wanted to go,” said his nephew Sam Nittle, of Wind Gap. “He lived life to the fullest and had no regrets about anything. He was the patriarch of the family.”
Ruggiero was one of 11 children and never married or had kids of his own.
He worked at clubs and taverns, tending bar at popular watering holes like the Buckhorn and Luigi’s Ranch-O outside Belvidere and running the bar service at Florida hotspots such as the Boca Raton Resort and Hollywood Beach Hotel.
His life and outlook came under special interest by Dr. Mahesh Krishnamurthy, an Easton Hospital specialist in internal medicine. The doctor’s fascination with the so-called “Roseto Effect” blossomed after first treating Ruggiero about two years ago.
Ruggiero, he said, was a special patient.
“He was happy with very little,” said Krishnamurthy, program director of the internal medicine residency program at Easton.
“I believe that’s key. When you feel contented with what you have as opposed to always reaching for the sky and keeping up with your neighbor, it was a lesson learned.
“To me his story was told in four words: happy with very little.”
The Roseto Effect
Movies have been made and books written about the secrets of longevity. In 1964, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association hit upon an astonishing find in the hilly town in Northampton County.
A University of Oklahoma physician, Dr. Stewart Wolf, studied the effect of social structure on health from 1955 to 1961. He concluded that Roseto’s low rate of heart attacks and mortality compared to the rest of the region and the nation was attributable to the close-knit community and generations under one roof typical of Roseto at the time.
Roseto produced such results despite health risk factors that were all around: jugs of homemade red wine, foods cooked in lard, the smoking of cigars.
Fifty-five years later, Krishnamurthy encountered living proof that there must be something to the hypothesis and believes it might be applied to centenarians in general.
An article he wrote with a colleague, Dr. Raafia Memon, after spending time with Ruggiero notes that nearly 20 percent of the 55,000 100-year-olds in the U.S. in 2014 lived below the poverty line.
“These people have very little income but they have an attitude to life that is phenomenal,” Krishnamurthy said. “Mr. Ruggiero told me that’s how you live a happy life and a long life.
“The moment you start stressing about things, he said, is when the problems come. He believed that being happy with very little was the secret to longevity.
“Once people are older, they are very contented people,” Krishnamurthy said. “I can’t prove it based on the life story of one person, but I have seen it in people like him who don’t have a gloomy attitude and aren’t ticked off about small things. I do believe that there is something to it.”
Proud of his independence
Most of Ruggiero’s siblings lived into their 80s and 90s. He moved to Florida in the late 1960s then came back in the 1990s to help tend to two of his sisters, said niece Kathie Marinucci, of Roseto.
He maintained a fierce independence and lived the past few years at the Walden III assisted-living facility in Wind Gap.
Ruggiero drove until he was 100, could recall stories from his childhood in vivid detail and passed along traditions to his many nieces and nephews that they say would be lost forever were it not for his insistence.
With decades in the service industry, for example, he prided himself on his Caesar salad.
“It had to have the 13 ingredients,” said Marinucci, who lives in the house where she grew up. “You had to use the wooden bowl, which you never washed, and you had to smash the anchovies.”
Marinucci and Nittle are brother and sister whose late mother, Rose Nittle, was the youngest of Ruggiero’s family. While they looked after their uncle Armie, he lived essentially on his own up until the end.
One day last month, he called Nittle at home and summoned him to Walden III.
“I need you to come and see me,” he said.
To me his story was told in four words: happy with very little.”
Nittle said Ruggiero was uncharacteristically serious and business-minded that day. He pointed a crooked finger at his nephew and shook it at him.
“He said ‘This is my home now,'” a surprised Nittle recalled.
“He said ‘I had a home in Florida and don’t have it anymore. I had a home in Roseto and don’t have that anymore. This is my home. I go and come as I please.
“‘Don’t you ever put me in a home and don’t you ever let people see me if I can’t take care of myself.'”
Ruggiero also related something that Nittle says he can’t explain today. The family traditionally gathers at Nittle’s home on Christmas Eve and the nephew makes Manhattans.
“He said, ‘I don’t want you to feel bad about this, but I’m not coming over this year for Christmas,'” Nittle said.
A few hours after leaving, NIttle got a call from his sister. Ruggiero had taken a fall in the dining area and was going to Lehigh Valley Hospital. Doctors said he had fractured his neck in the spill.
Ruggiero died of bronchial pneumonia about 10 days later, his family said.
“The day this all happened, which was the beginning of the end, is the day he called me and told me all this,” Nittle said.
A different time
Roseto is different today than the town that gained recognition for its endurance. About 1,500 people live there, but the concentration of Italian-Americans has been diluted.
In 1989, Dr. Wolf restudied the Roseto Effect and found the mortality rates were in line with other communities such as Bangor and Nazareth. The difference was gone.
“The Rosetan values of cohesive family structure started fading away in the late 1960s,” Dr. Krishnamurthy said.
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Roseto
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Roseto has been the place of worship for generations of the borough’s Italian-Americans. (Jim Deegan | For lehighvalleylive.com)
Even today, the mayor and most of borough council have last names, like the streets, that end in vowels. But it’s not the place it was, according to longtime residents.
“Back then everybody knew everyone else,” said Michael Romano, 62, the borough council president. “If you walked down the street and you were doing something wrong, the parents didn’t have a problem disciplining someone else’s child. It’s not that way today.”
You can still get tomato pie and cannoli at Roseto Bakery, formerly LeDonne’s, and there’s Italian fare and espresso machines for sale at Ruggiero’s Market on Dante Street. But the days when Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church was packed and Catholic schools were open have faded like the Roseto Effect.
Romano said the Italian-American culture that emphasized education and college served to diminish the effect.
“There’s still a core of Italians with the church and the fire company, but the composition of Roseto has changed,” he said.
Doc looks back on colorful 57-year career
Doc looks back on colorful 57-year career
While the Roseto Effect may be long gone, its documentation remains useful, according to Easton Hospital’s Krishnamurthy.
He feels grateful to have been able to capture a fleeting phenomenon in Carmen Ruggiero and his stories of Roseto.
“All of my patients are equal because I care for their medical conditions,” he said, “but sometimes there are cases that speak to you much more.
“He had a profound effect on me,” he said of Ruggiero. “There was a different connection. He would make you so comfortable and you could talk to him for hours and not even realize it.”
With further study involving other centenarians, Krishnamurthy hopes to one day publish a medical paper that ties attitude and longevity together.
It’s something he says is worthy of emphasis.
“We’re going through tough times all across the world,” he said. “I see a lot of discontentment in the youth of today and I don’t know how to change that.”
An old man from Roseto who didn’t drive anymore still may have held the keys.
“There’s something about the centenarians who find joy in small things,” the doctor said. “They find a purpose in life. We need to find some level of happiness and contentment with what we are and who we are.
“For me, it is going to be a lifelong quest.”
[Jim Deegan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jim_deegan. Find lehighvalleylive on Facebook]