LINDEN, NJ — Joseph Bianco seemed to get choked up.
The 98-year-old city resident dropped out of high school to get a job and help his immigrant parents make ends meet, and later enlisted in the Air Force, got married, had kids and worked to provide for his family. He has pursued his interests in life with a passion, from becoming a portrait artist to helping build a house to avidly following his beloved St. Louis Cardinals, but he never made it back to school.
So, when he was awarded an honorary diploma the Nov. 29 Linden Citizen’s Association meeting at the VFW lodge on Pennsylvania Road, Bianco was a little emotional.
“I was overwhelmed,” Bianco said in a Nov. 30 phone interview with LocalSource. “It means a lot to me. It was over 80 years ago that I dropped out of school to help the family. It’s something that doesn’t happen that often. I feel like I have something.”
Elizabeth Superintendent of Schools Olga Hugelmeyer presented the diploma to Bianco, who was halfway through his junior year when he dropped out of Thomas Jefferson High School in Elizabeth, which is now a high school arts academy.
“I have a great respect and admiration for our nation’s servicemen and -women for the sacrifices they make to protect our freedoms,” Hugelmeyer said. “Not only did Joseph M. Bianco make such a sacrifice for his country, but also a significant personal sacrifice of leaving high school to support his family. It was a true privilege to present him with this honorary diploma as a small recognition for his tremendous service and sacrifice to his family and country.”
“The Elizabeth Board of Education not only recognizes its students and staff members for its excellent achievements, but also members of the greater community for their outstanding contributions,” Elizabeth Board of Education President Maria Carvalho said. “I could not think of a person more deserving of such an honor than Joseph M. Bianco, who exemplifies selflessness through all he gave to his family and our country. We are proud to recognize this wonderful Elizabethan as an honorary graduate of Elizabeth Public Schools.”
Bianco learned about life at the School of Hard Knocks. He spent 30 years working for Exxon, serving in various roles including plumbing and electrical, before retiring in the 1980s. He and his wife, Elizabeth, raised two daughters. He was an avid reader and friends say they never know if he’s about to quote Voltaire, Shakespeare, Eleanor Roosevelt or Perry Cuomo.
“Having dropped out and achieved what I have — some people, when you say ‘achieved what you have,’ they have different levels of achievement,” Bianco said. “With what I have achieved, I am content with. I always had food on the table and a roof on the house and the family was educated.”
Elizabeth, Bianco’s wife of 66 years, died about six years ago.
He has five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, many of whom live nearby and help him.
Bianco said he can’t do as much since he recently had an aortic valve replacement and a pacemaker procedure.
But just prior to that, he went to see the Cardinals play the Mets at Citi Field with former Linden municipal Judge Dan Roberts and Linden Superintendent of Schools Danny Robertozzi.
“He was a 96-year-old guy (at the time), so you figure we have to take it easy and not walk fast,” Roberts said in a phone interview Nov. 30. “But, no he was fine. We got to Citi Field, sat in our seats. The food is out in center field. We were like, ‘We’ll get food.’ So, we told Joe, ‘We’ll go get the food. What do you want?’ He was like, ‘I’m coming with you.’ So, we walked all the way to center field and got the food and sat there and ate it and went back to our seats.”
Bianco said he is sometimes asked if he has advice for others hoping to live a long, rich life.
“Not really,” he said. “Nothing fancy and I always quote Perry Cuomo. They asked him the same thing. He said, ‘I’m just a simple guy with simple taste and I don’t ask too much from life.’”
Bianco said his one regret is that he didn’t become a better dancer. He remembers a time when he and Elizabeth were in Vienna, listening to an orchestra play waltzes.
“A young lady walked up to me — my wife and I were seated in the first row —and she asked me to dance,” Bianco said. “I had to refuse her. I didn’t want to get up there and stumble. But that was the only thing. I wish I was a better dancer.”