By Marion Filler
It’s not every 100-year-old who can walk unaided into a crowded room; greet visiting dignitaries, family, and friends; listen to two hours of speeches; pose for photographs, and then attend a party in his honor without batting an eye.
On Friday, Antonio Cardona of Morristown did exactly that.
His birthday bash at the Morristown & Township Library inaugurated a library oral history program that will preserve the stories of Hispanic residents in Morris County.
A native of Colombia, Cardona arrived in Morristown in 1972 and still lives in the same house on Speedwell Avenue, now with his daughter Miriam.
“When I got here, I had no friends. I got here and knew no one. Now, I have a lot of friends and know a lot of people,” he said in Spanish, translated by his granddaughter, Andrea Betancourt.
Video: Going strong at 100
Wearing a bow tie and dark suit, and looking remarkably spry with a full head of white hair and confident stride, he appeared delighted to see family and friends who came from Denver, Tampa, Miami, Texas, and Colombia to honor him a few days ahead of his Aug. 26 centennial.
Cardona married Judith Bentancourth de la Pava in Colombia in 1949. Just over two decades later, when his business faltered, he came to the U.S., alone. Like so many before him, he was searching for a brighter future.
He found it. In one year, Cardona was able to bring Judith and their two youngest children to America. They eventually were followed by the seven older children.
Working together, the Cardonas saved enough to buy their house in Morristown. Their family of six girls and three boys (two sets of twins) has grown to include 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren – many of whom attended Friday’s festivities.
“He still manages to go back to Colombia at least once a year,” to escape winter, said cousin Manuela Nieto of Dover. “But he can’t wait to come home.”
Cardona was employed by Morristown Memorial Hospital until retiring in 1983. Judith passed away in 2005 after 54 years of marriage.
The party was coordinated by Esperanza Porras-Field, founder and president of the Morris County Hispanic-American Chamber of Commerce.
“We understand that cultural diversity is more important than ever before” she said, pointing out that Hispanics have been a presence in Morris County for three generations.
Speaker after speaker paid tribute, referring to Cardona’s life as the fulfillment of the American Dream.
There was a proclamation from County Clerk Ann Grossi, who declared Cardona “Clerk for a Day”; a resolution from Freeholder Heather Darling; an award from state Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (R-25th Dist.); and a flag flown over the Capitol, presented by Darcy Gallego from the office of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, accompanied by Freeholder candidate Mary Dougherty, his spouse, recalled how his close association with the Hispanic community resulted in an addiction to Colombian coffee. He proclaimed Aug. 26, 2018, as Antonio Cardona Day in Morristown.
The Morris County Prosecutor’s Office also was represented; so was the Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center.
Cardona never stopped smiling throughout the evening. He expressed fondness for just about everything in his adopted homeland.
“I like that it’s very organized,” he said, “and anything you are trying to achieve can be done.”
In the past, the library’s North Jersey History & Genealogy Center has interviewed Irish- and African American residents, collaborating on publications to preserve their history in Morris County.
“We wanted to do the same with the Hispanic community in Greater Morristown,” said Library Director Chad Leinaweaver.
Together with James Lewis, head of the center, and Reference Librarian Luis Muñoz, Leinaweaver is asking the Hispanic community for its assistance.
Some of the stories will be painful.
Franciso DeJesus, a community leader, said as a youth he routinely was frisked at area movie theaters, because then-FBI Director J.Edgar Hoover believed every Puerto Rican carried a knife.
Because of such attitudes, Muñoz said he was “not too proud” of his Puerto Rican heritage as a child.
“Fortunately, that is not the case as an adult,” the librarian said. “Unfortunately, we are still made invisible by some. But we are a proud community, owed its due.”
A questionnaire was given to each Hispanic person in attendance about his or her experience in the U.S. The library plans to invite everyone–and especially Cardona–back next year to hear the results.
Cardona said the two biggest changes he has observed in Morristown are traffic, and public behavior.
“Some people drink a little more than others,” Cardona said, with a chuckle.
That’s not a problem for him. “I’ve never liked alcohol,” he explained.
So how does one reach the century mark, anyway?
Cardona credits exercise, salmon soup for breakfast, and a good attitude.
“Try your best to be at peace with everyone and with God,” Cardona suggested.
Kevin Coughlin contributed to this article.