A 102-Year-Old Veteran Who’s Full of Life
Opportunities to sit and speak with those from the Greatest Generation, especially those who served our country, are becoming more rare as we start to lose them. But at nearly 102 years old, the self-proclaimed “Jimmy the Kid,” having lived a full life, is still full of life.
On December 18, 1920, James Cavanagh came into the world. About a month later, due to complications from childbirth, his mother died. “How many people can say my mother died 100 years ago?” he said with a laugh at his home in Baldwin, Long Island. It’s that good sense of humor that has helped carry him through in his 101 years so far. Plus, his everlasting faith and perhaps, a guardian angel watching over moments in his life, that could have made living more than a century impossible, including surviving World War II.
“My claim is that when I was born in December 1920 and my mother died a month later, and I would go on over 100 years without a mother, the Lord said, ‘Sonny boy, you lost your mother, but we’re going to take care of you,'” he said.
As the youngest of seven children in their home in Brooklyn, having to take care of a new baby as a single parent was daunting for Cavanagh’s father, an Irish immigrant who became a firefighter in 1906. So, little Jimmy went to live with an aunt, in an arrangement that would be short lived. “They sent me with an aunt, and I stayed with her on Utica Avenue. Her husband must’ve died, and she had a boyfriend and at 5 years old I must’ve hid his whiskey. We were in a 4th floor tenement and these guys hung me out the window by my ankles,” he recalled. Cavanagh eventually moved back in with his siblings.
But in many ways, Cavanagh had to figure out things on his own. He went to St. Catherine’s for elementary school and had to pay his way through high school at St. Michael’s, a school that no longer exists, but he still gets the alumni letters for it. Up until a few years ago, there were a handful of men on the alumni list for the class of 1938. Today, Cavanagh is the last. “I’m number one,” he said. He still makes sure to send donations to the alumni association to take care of the retired Xaverian brothers. After all, he owes the school. “I made them an I.O.U. I still owe them for my books!” he said.
Cavanagh tried his best to pay for school, but times were tough. “It was the depression in the ‘30s. I trained for two weeks to become a soda jerker. I lived in Brooklyn and had my first job at like a CVS drugstore on Madison, operating the soda fountain. I can’t remember what day today is, but I remember, it was 54 hours a week, six days a week for $17 a week, but it cost 5 cents to get to Madison and if I wanted the newspaper, it was 2 cents,” Cavanagh said. “Things were different then.”
Cavanagh worked lots of odd jobs. In the early 1940s he found himself working at a shipyard. “I worked on the SS Normandy. I was working on it when the fire started. The fire boats must’ve put too much water on one side, because when I got to work the next morning, the ship was laying on its side,” he said.
At the time, WWII was underway, and Cavanagh knew it was only a matter of time until he was drafted. So he chose the best path for himself, and followed the boats. “When you’re drafted, you go right into the Army, so I made arrangements. I joined the Navy because they told me I would be drafted. I liked traveling and I think the Navy was a safer place to be,” he said. In 1942, Cavanagh went into the service.
“I’m no war hero,” Cavanagh said. But perhaps it was his mother watching over, or his faith, that kept him off the frontlines of the battle. “I was heading to California, and I got to Panama and I was on the ship that was heading right into the battles. The ship was an LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) and I would’ve been right up on the battlefield, but they had to take me off the ship in Panama,” Cavanagh said. “He borrowed some guy’s razor blade and got an infection and was in the hospital. He wasn’t on the ship when it went down,” his son, Jimmy Cavanagh chimed in.
“My neck swelled up and I was in the hospital for three months. I was supposed to go to Okinawa, and I was going to be a head signalman. Years ago, there were no radios, I had to go to school for three months to learn morse code. All I remember now is IMI—repeat. We would take up soldiers right on the beach and I was atop the tower and as a signalman, you’re dead meat in battle. If I went out, I wouldn’t be here today. It was a great adventure and the Lord saved me,” he said. “The guy who took my place on the ship probably got killed.”
After his fateful hospital stint, Cavanagh was sent back on duty, this time to the South Atlantic. “I was on a subchaser. It was a small ship, only about 24 guys. I was on the canal zone, and we tracked submarines. We used to take convoys and the ships had a convoy commodore, so I was the signalman for him. One of the last trips, we took evacuees from Hong Kong to Cuba. That was another blessing that I went on convoy duty. I was gonna go to Okinawa but Harry Truman, —I loved Harry—he dropped the bomb and that was the end of everything. The war was over.”
After serving with the Navy for three years, Cavanagh sought out his next steps. While his oldest brother, Jack, had become a cop, it wasn’t something Cavanagh was interested in. College, though the military would pay for it, wasn’t an option. “I had to help my family out. My father retired in 1928 and his pension, in 1945, was only $100 a month,” he recalled. So he got to work. “I heard about this job after I got out of the Navy, working for the Post Office and you’d work six days and get eight days off working on the trains. We did the mail on the train, these three 60-foot cars,” he said. “I was working for the Post Office before they had zip codes. I had to study and know all of the 2,700 towns in Pennsylvania to keep the job.” It’s a job he would do until 1981, when Cavanagh finally retired.
And in that time, he created a family of his own. “I didn’t get married until 29. I met her in a friendly tavern. She was there with her sister and we got to talking and I got her phone number and called her. Dorothy Donnelly,” he said. “Friends called her Dolly, and we called her Lolly,” Cavanagh’s nephew, Donald said. In 1950, James and Dolly ran off to elope. “I said to her, ‘Do you want to run away and get married?’ My father, he was old at the time and I said, ‘Father, I’m gonna get married.’ He said, ‘Ok, but don’t stay out too late,’” Cavanagh recalled.
The couple went off to Elkton, Maryland by train and honeymooned in Washington, D.C. on a $200 gift from his uncle. They were married for 64 years. His wife, Dorothy, passed away in 2014, living to 90. “I’ve been so lucky,” Cavanagh said.
In that time, James and Dorothy had three children—Jimmy, Thomas and Dorothy, some of whom are now seniors themselves. “You know how you can tell you’re old?” Cavanagh says. “When your kids are on Medicare.”
Most of his kids went on to work in civil service. Jimmy, now a retired bus driver and Thomas works for Sanitation, while Dorothy, who lives up in Albany, went the housewife route, making James a grandfather to Sean, Ryan and Jim.
Jimmy the Kid had spent much of his life as a Brooklyn kid. “The beauty of being born in Brooklyn is where else can you have Coney Island, one of the greatest amusement places in the world, a train ride to Times Square and the Brooklyn Dodgers as your team? It was a great place,” he said.
After getting married, Cavanagh and his bride rented an apartment on Flatbush Avenue. “It was a three-bedroom apartment for $39 a month,” he recalled. And being so close, sometimes they switched up their Coney Island beach trips for a ride across the bridge. “We used to go to Rockaway. Irish town,” the man who came from Irish immigrant parents said. “We’d go to Riis Park, it was just a bus ride away.” They lived on Flatbush until they bought their first home near the Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn. “My first house was $15,000 on Courtelyou Road and East 45th Street,” Cavanagh recalled. Less than the cost of a Toyota Camry he leased a few years back. “The car guy wanted 16 grand for a Toyota. He told the guy ‘that costs more than my house,’” his son, Jimmy said. But he still bought the car. Up until age 100, Cavanagh was hitting the road in his Camry. But he only racked up 6,000 miles before his kids insisted it was time to take the license away.
Today, without the help of a walker, Cavanagh mostly gets around on foot, sometimes crossing Sunrise Highway to visit a local thrift shop where prices align more with the ones he remembered, as he proudly showed off a pair of $70 Northface shoes that he got for a whopping $9. But in addition to good sales, why, at nearly 102, does Jimmy the Kid cross the highway? “For the exercise,” he said.
After living in Brooklyn for 50 years, in 1972, Cavanagh followed a fellow Brooklynite to Baldwin, buying a two-family home for his family to grow up in and to make some rental income. It’s the home he still lives in and runs today. When he’s not crossing highways, Cavanagh is at home, cleaning, cooking, occasionally carrying laundry up the stairs, putting his life story down in a book, taking time to watch the Yankees while he eats chocolate ice cream, or throwing on the Off Track Betting channel to bet on the ponies in nearby Belmont—a hobby he did so often, that some OTB staff on the other end of the phone wanted to meet him in person. “He has an OTB account, and he knows these people from calling in to make bets and they wanted to take him out to lunch because he’s such a character,” his son, Jimmy said.
It’s unclear if that lunch ever happened, but Cavanagh has been treated to steak dinners by strangers on occasion when he goes out wearing his WWII veteran hat. And on December 18, Cavanagh’s family will treat him to dinner as he celebrates his 102nd birthday.
All things considered, for over a century old, Jimmy the Kid is doing pretty well for someone who has outlived all their siblings, classmates and even doctors. Aside from aging skin and losing some of his short-term memory, Cavanagh is relatively healthy. He even says after years of smoking cigarettes in the Navy and a pipe later on, he was able to get over COPD. “You don’t live to 102 with that,” he said. But he turned to prayer. “I prayed to the Blessed Mother about three years ago and sure enough, I haven’t had to take the medicine in three years. I’m cured,” he said.
His faith, Cavanagh says, is the secret to getting him through to 102. As he looks at a series of photos featuring Jesus Christ and Mary on a mirror in his living room, he says, “The secret to life is you got to keep in touch with the Blessed Mother and Jesus. I don’t think anything else can compare. I’ve had a blessed life.”