He’s 99 and Competing on the Ice

Ralph Vaccaro of the Tufts Class of 1941 is the world’s oldest active curling player
Ralph Vaccaro on the ice with curling stick and stone
“You don’t stop playing because you get old,” Ralph Vaccaro said. “You get old because you stop playing.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
November 2, 2018

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It’s an early Wednesday morning at the Cape Cod Curling Club and Ralph Vaccaro, A41, A81P, is poised to go out on the ice.

A whiff of white hair peeks out of a cap with padding in the back, just in case he falls backward, although around here the preferred term is “tumble.” Like other players here, he wears grippers over his shoes so he doesn’t slip. His blue polar fleece vest and gloves will keep him warm, because the rink is, of course, chilly. At his side is his curling stick, which he will use to throw polished stones toward the concentric rings of the target area. 

Vaccaro has been a regular here three mornings a week from October through March for fourteen years. His attendance record is summed up in one word: perfect. Most impressive, though, is a distinction that comes with his age. At ninety-nine, he is the world’s oldest curler, certified by the Guinness World Records 2018.

Being in the Guinness World Records may have brought unexpected fame to the modest, good-natured Tufts graduate, but he’s taking it all in stride. After all, he’s led a long and full life—as a veteran of World War II and a research scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and raising a family of six with his wife, Martha, now herself an upbeat eighty-eight.

After his retirement from Woods Hole, he continued to work for thirteen years at Falmouth High School as a lab coordinator. During the summers, he and Martha maintained—and still do—a come-one-come-all bocce court next to their home; he also played and coached hockey. And as a talented violinist, he performed with the Cape Cod Symphony, and he continues to sing in the choir at St. Elizabeth Seton Church.

He was not looking for accolades as he approached the end of his tenth decade, but his son, Peter, thought it was worth a try. Vaccaro says he was “stunned” when he learned earlier this summer that he was a titleholder. “Friends and family were excited, and that kind of made me excited, too.”

Ralph Vaccaro takes his turn during a morning game at the Cape Cod Curling Club. Photo: Alonso NicholsMost important for him, he said, is how curling keeps him moving and in touch with friends.

“It’s exercise and it’s a social gathering—it’s a nice group of people here,” he said of the club, devoted to preserving the collegial spirit of a game with seasonal “learn-to-curl” classes for youngsters and adults.

The sport originated on the frozen ponds and lochs of sixteenth-century Scotland—the carpet in the Cape Cod Curling Club is appropriately patterned in plaid. But Vaccaro is not one of the kilted set. “Kilts are for professionals!” he said with a laugh.

Still, perseverance puts him in a class by himself. Vaccaro discovered the Falmouth, Massachusetts club in 2007, when Martha gave him a trial membership.

“I’ve played bocce all my life, and I thought, ‘Well, curling—that’s just bocce on ice, isn’t it?” he said. “And then I came here and found out it’s not bocce. It’s much more complicated.”

The official notice about Ralph Vaccaro from Guinness World Records, on display at the Cape Cod Curling Club. Photo: Alonso NicholsBut one of the sport’s legendary stick curlers, Leonard (Mac) Jones, took Vaccaro under his wing and mentored his progress. In 2008, Vaccaro played in a bonspiel—a curling competition—and his team won. 

“It felt pretty good,” he said. “I have played in this bonspiel every year since and placed a few times. But even after fourteen years at the game, he said, “I can’t say that I have reached the mastery stage.”

A Man for All Seasons

His son Peter, when reached by email, said the family attributes Vaccaro’s longevity and vigor to staying active in both mind and body.

“His entire life he has immersed himself into a very diverse list of interests that leveraged his talents in different ways—from science to music, art to the military, photography to athletics, and flying airplanes to gardening,” he said. Perhaps most importantly, he’s never let disappointments or failures get him down. “He has always been willing to be a beginner, but he never settled for that,” he said. “He’s always looking to do better.”

That striving began early, growing up in a household where education was important; his father had put himself through high school and went on to be both a CPA and an attorney. Raised in Somerville, with Tufts in his backyard, Vaccaro was one of four siblings to earn Tufts degrees; one sister went to Boston University, but his other sister graduated from Tufts’ Jackson College in 1939, and his brother from the School of Engineering in 1943.  

Besides biology classes in Barnum, Vaccaro remembers fondly a small, chummy college with a reservoir on the top of the Hill (now the Carmichael Quad); he recalls enjoying pickup hockey when the “Rez” froze. (Martha also revealed, during a coffee break at the club, that Vaccaro’s “one run-in with the law” happened on Professors Row. It involved sneaking into a prized orchard belonging to music professor Leo Lewis. “Once in a while we’d go up there and steal a few pears and apples,” he admitted, with a smile.)

After graduating in 1941, he went on to MIT, where he earned a master’s in public health. Enlisting in the Army during World War II, he saw the front lines of combat as an Army medic. He survived, among other conflicts, the Battle of the Bulge.   

Returning home, he was working for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts when a colleague “talked me into going down to Woods Hole,” he said. The move to Cape Cod paid off; his interest in marine microbiology led to more than three decades of research on oceanographic plankton.

Woods Hole was also where Martha arrived four years later, a freshly minted math major whose head for numbers made her a whiz at analyzing data for meteorologists long before the advent of computers. The institute, she recalled, was just one building, and while she and her husband were on different floors, “we had the same coffee hour.” Now married for sixty-three years, they raised six children—five boys and one daughter—in a large cape in West Falmouth. He renewed his ties to Tufts as a parent of Christopher, Class of 1981, and as a co-founder of the Cape Cod Tufts Club, whose regular meetings and luncheons he and Martha never miss.

A Game of Strategy

Martha typically drives her husband to the Cape Cod Curling Club and stays, knitting the hats and mittens she’s been sending to a North Dakota Indian reservation for years. The world record title, she acknowledges, did bring a flurry of local press, including a feature in the Cape Cod Times, but she noted that her husband tends to favor a low profile. “He has always been willing to sit in the back,” she said. “He’s never been one to say, hey, look at me.”

But curling does require considerable strategy and teamwork. Darryl Christensen is manager of the morning league, which meets three times a week, and notes that Vaccaro’s position as a lead speaks to well-honed skills.

Ralph Vaccaro watches the action at the Cape Cod Curling Club in Falmouth. Photo: Alonso NicholsIt is the lead who delivers the first two stones, and these stones are pivotal when they become guards; if placed strategically in the target area, they can prevent the other team from scoring. 

Where Vaccaro places the stones “can dictate the strategy for the rest of the end,” said Christensen.

“He has a good feel for directing the stone,” he said. “He is very good at controlling the speed of the stone so that it is neither too heavy and goes through the house nor too light and fails to get far enough to be useful.  His eyesight is fine, and he always knows what shot the skip is calling for.”

Christensen, at age seventy-eight, added that he—and everyone else at the club—admires Vaccaro for as a team player, and for reasons well beyond curling. “He’s my hero,” he said. “He is always cheerful, and the most faithful morning attendee. I just hope to be like him when I grow up.”

Vaccaro is characteristically deferential when asked about his curling talent. “You have to put the right amount of curl on it and the right amount of pressure,” he said, when asked about what he tries to do well. But how does he know how to do that?

“The ice will tell you,” he said. “The ice tells you what you’re doing wrong. Sometimes it’s very soft and sometimes it’s very fast. It takes you a while to find out.”

It’s a way of thinking, in fact, that comes with a larger life philosophy, one that so far seems to be working.

 “You don’t stop playing because you get old,” he said. “You get old because you stop playing.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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