News flash: There is no secret to living a long life.
That's what Sydney L. Cole tells anyone who asks him how he got to be 103 years old.
"I tell them 'If I tell you my secret, I won't have a secret,' " he said.
Then he added, "There is no secret."
Then the spry World War II pilot talked about what to avoid: "I never smoked a cigarette, I'm not a drinker, never got in trouble after school."
Several dozen of Cole's friends gathered Friday afternoon to celebrate his birthday at Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where he lives in the community living care unit. Members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart wore purple shirts, and they presented him with a cake that honored the Purple Hearts he earned when he was shot down behind enemy lines in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge.
He was shot in his arm and leg as he parachuted down.
"Just before he passes out, he took his dog tags, there was an 'H' on them for Hebrew. The enemy wasn't fond of Jewish people. He ripped off his dog tags and threw them as far as he could, and then he passed out," said his son, Richard.
He was picked up by Germans, and he spent about a year in captivity, where he was beaten and abused, Richard Cole said.
"He was 150 pounds when he went in," Richard Cole said. "When he came out he was 80 pounds."
He was awarded a Bronze Star, and eventually came back to Buffalo and started a car dealership.
"He's seen the worst," Richard Cole said. "He's been through it all, so if the roof blows off his house, he could care less, nothing bothers him anymore."
Sydney Cole was married more than 60 years to his late wife, Sybil. He was a championship swimmer, played handball for 55 years with the same group of guys, gave up his car – a red Mini Cooper – when he was 100, and he walked a mile in a fundraiser just two years ago.
Miranda Hulse said she met Cole when she was walking in Laps for Limbs, a fundraiser for children and veterans in need of artificial limbs.
"He walked a mile when he was 101," she said. "We just became friends since then."
Hulse often visits him, takes him for coffee and dinner. She often brings her 2-year-old German shepherd service dog, Bolt, along.
"The three of us pretty much go everywhere," she said. "I come and see him about every day."
Cole is used to being the oldest guy in the room with most people from his generation no longer alive.
"They're all dead. My squadron, my high school, my college – all dead. Nobody ever lives to be a hundred, you know what I mean?" Sydney Cole said. "Wherever I went, I had to make new friends."
But he's pretty good at that, judging from those who attended his party. Cole has affected those at the VA, from the volunteer at the front desk to the emergency department staff.
"I believe there are 11 floors here in the VA, and every floor knows who my father is. They've heard his story and they come and shake his hand," Richard Cole said.