The COVID-19 pandemic has muted the possibility of marking special occasions because of public health restrictions.
But friends of Willie Glaser, a Jewish veteran of the Second World War who turned 100 years old Friday, wanted to make sure that his milestone birthday was exceptional.
So Stuart Cohen, a teacher at the Hebrew Foundation School (HFS) in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, organized a surprise birthday celebration outside Glaser’s residence in the Montreal borough of Saint-Laurent.
“I made it my mission to make this morning, this day, a little bit extra special (for Glaser),” Cohen said.
The centenarian has been sharing his war stories with kids at the school for 15 years. The event, said Cohen, was a way to say thanks.
Glaser, for his part, was thrilled.
“Well, it only happens once in a lifetime,” he laughed.
Because of pandemic restrictions only a handful of people were on hand, including politicians, friends and a bagpiper. Everyone else, including the school community, took part remotely singing “happy birthday” and sending good wishes via video conference.
According to Cohen, the gathering formed a surrogate family for Glaser, something the former infantry lieutenant said he was grateful for.
“You see, I lost my whole family except one sister in the Holocaust,” he told Global News.
He has no children, his wife passed away more than a decade ago and all his other relatives are abroad.
But he’s not exactly alone. Mary Boeko, a woman he met at synagogue, is his girlfriend.
“It took four years for me to say yes I wanna go with him,” she said, laughing as the two sat in the lobby of his apartment building.
According to her, they’ve been together eight years, but it took him a while to ask her out.
“He was eyeing me and eyeing me, until he got the nerve to ask somebody, ‘who is that lady, who is that lady?'” she joked.
Boeko said she finds him fascinating and that he’s a great storyteller, and that she isn’t surprised by the number of birthday greetings he’s received, including letters from the Queen, Governor General Julie Payette and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. There were also greetings from politicians, from municipal to federal.
She pointed out, though, that she has her own gift.
“Me,” she winked before giving a thumbs-up in his direction.
Boeko said the two have a lot planned for his birthday, adding he’s full of energy and doesn’t act his age.
“I feel 75,” he piped up.
As he stood, he complained that he was getting stiff.
“You’re getting old, my dear,” Boeko quipped, before whispering, “he doesn’t like it when I call him old!”
She noted that Glaser was already looking forward to his birthday, post pandemic.
“He’s planning a cruise for next year,” she revealed.
Glaser admitted, though, that he’s also looking forward to one thing more than any vacation — seeing the kids at HFS again.
“Well, I tell them about my war experience,” he explained. “Slightly lightly, you know? Fitting for the kids.”
He also has one wish.
“Let’s hope there is not another war,” he stressed. “That’s the message I have.”