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With age-old values, a 100th birthday Theresa Illos brims with devotion to God, family, community

You'd need a book to tell the full story of Buffalo's newest centenarian but only three words to capture the essence of her life: Dio. Famiglia. Comunita.

God. Family. Community.

A few moments with Theresa Illos, and those themes shine through.

"I've had a good life; I can't complain," she said. "The most important things in life are the things that you can't touch or see. You have to have faith and love and a feeling in your heart."

Illos, a devout Catholic, turns 100 today. Four generations of family marked the milestone at a party Sunday in Illos' honor at Sisters Hospital's St. Catherine Laboure Health Care Center, where she now lives.

"She's my best friend," said Robbie Illos-Gerth, her 49-year-old granddaughter, who three years ago traveled with her then-96-year-old grandmother to Disney World.

That was the grandmother's last such journey in a life that has taken her to every corner of the globe, including Asia, Europe and most of North America.

"I think I saw everything. Paris. London. I've been to all of that there," Illos said. "It's got to the point where if I wanted to see anything more, I'll watch it on TV."

Since turning 90, Illos has dubbed the last decade "bonus years." Although a little hard of hearing, she otherwise has no significant physical ailments and takes nothing more than a single vitamin every day.

As for the recipe for striking the century mark -- was it the daily breakfast plate of eggs? Or splashing Jack Daniel's into her cup of coffee?

"Hard work," she said. "And luck."

Illos, in a lot of ways, has made her own luck.

Her family made it through the Depression and then saw to it to help those less fortunate when she and her husband of 44 years, Joseph, owned the Bowl Mor Bowling Center on Niagara Street. There, she spooned out bowl after bowl of pasta fagioli for homeless men.

Many of the men hailed from the "foot of Main Street" when it wasn't coveted waterfront property. In exchange for the soup, they would set pins at the bowling center, and they were rewarded further with Thanksgiving and other holiday dinners prepared by Illos.

Illos' husband died in 1976. When asked by her granddaughter whether she would ever remarry, Illos offers a wry smile, shaking her head.

"I'm what, 99?" Illos said last week. "Who wants a 99-year-old girl? Those days are gone."

The woman who helped put six children through Catholic school and had been a "Mother of the Year" at Bishop Fallon High School prays every day from her second-floor room, which is adorned with photos testifying to her longevity.

One, of herself and eight sisters -- from the 1920s or '30s -- is blown up poster-size, a snapshot in time of nine youthful, smiling sisters, many now long departed. Others are of a 96-year-old Illos posed with several popular Disney characters.

She spends her days doing crossword puzzles and Scrabble, as well as watching TV, and is content to just keep on living "as long as God wants [her] to."

Which is now 100 years.

"I never thought of it," Illos said. "Time just went on. I kept having birthdays."

e-mail: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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