Santa brings Morristown seniors a new bus– but gets upstaged, by 98-year-old piano virtuoso

Hank Shapiro, 98, tickles the ivories at the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Hank Shapiro, 98, tickles the ivories at the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
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Santa brought the biggest present Morristown’s ever seen–a gleaming new bus for the town’s Colonial Coach service–and still got upstaged at this year’s seniors Christmas party at town hall.

What’s an elf to do?

Hey, even the Jolly One must doff his woolly cap to Hank Shapiro.

The World War II veteran regaled 175 seniors with his piano virtuosity. Not bad for 98 years old.

“It’s like 98 is the new 78,” said Mayor Tim Dougherty, describing Shapiro’s playing as “smooth as hot chocolate.”

Slideshow photos by Bill Lescohier. Hover / click over images for captions:

Santa brought a new Colonial Coach to the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Mayor Tim Dougherty and First Lady mary Dougherty, with seniors director Wayne Cresta, announce raffle winners at the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Seniors enjoy the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Hank Shapiro, left, piano virtuoso at age 98, and town seniors director Wayne Cresta at the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Chow line at the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Town hall employees volunteer on the food line at the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Hank Shapiro, 98, tickles the ivories at the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
First Lady Mary Dougherty and Mayor Tim Dougherty dig in at the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Seniors dine at the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Decorations at the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Firemen's wreaths at the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
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Let’s dispense with the bus first. (How did Santa cram that thing into his bag, anyway?)

It’s a brand-new, 28-passenger Thomas Transit HDX, unveiled in the parking lot during the Christmas party. The town bonded last year for the $166,466 purchase. (Santa’s helpers have to make a living, too.)

Some tweaks are being made; expect to see the bus in action in January, said town Administrator Jillian Barrick.  The free service operates four days a week: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from 8 am to 1 pm; and Saturdays from 9 am to noon.

Santa brought a new Colonial Coach to the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Santa brought a new Colonial Coach to the Mayor’s 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier

Morris Township pulled out of its partnership in the Colonial Coach a few years ago. Dougherty and Barrick said Morristown remains open to exploring a resumption of that shared service. A new administration takes office in the Township on Jan. 2, 2019.

Okay, back to the star of the show.

Born in Dover in 1920, Henry “Hank” Shapiro started studying music at age 5. By age 13 was entertaining people with his keyboard stylings.

Hank Shapiro, left, piano virtuoso at age 98, and town seniors director Wayne Cresta at the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Hank Shapiro, left, piano virtuoso at age 98, and town seniors director Wayne Cresta at the Mayor’s 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier

His first gigs, at Gearhardt’s on Lake Hopatcong, paid a whopping 75 cents a night. When he was 16, his big band played dance clubs around Hopatcong, and Budd Lake.

As family friend Wayne Cresta, Morristown’s manager of seniors programs, tells it, Shapiro studied with some top-flight musicians.

There were classical lessons with Paul Sievers and ragtime with Olie Angle, both in Dover.

Starting in 1937, he commuted to New York to learn jazz improvisation from Henry Scott.  He also studied writing and arranging with Otto Cesana, who referred him to Herman WassermanGeorge Gershwin’s arranger–for piano technique training.

Mayor Tim Dougherty and First Lady mary Dougherty, with seniors director Wayne Cresta, announce raffle winners at the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Mayor Tim Dougherty and First Lady mary Dougherty, with seniors director Wayne Cresta, announce raffle winners at the Mayor’s 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier

Then came World War II.  Shapiro enlisted in the Army Air Corps, marrying his Dover High School sweetheart, Doris Weber, in Chicago before shipping out for four years in the South Pacific.

He was based in New Guinea and the Philippines with a troop carrier squadron, flying C47s and C46s.

“There were many close calls,” said Shapiro, who attained the rank of captain.

After the war, he worked in his parents’ business, Shapiro’s Modern Economy Store, where Domino Pizza now stands in Dover.

He went on to open his own stores–the Economy Mart in Franklin and the Little Folks Shop in Sparta–while he and Doris raised four children.

Seniors enjoy the Mayor's 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Seniors enjoy the Mayor’s 2018 Holiday Party. Photo by Bill Lescohier

On nights and weekends, Shapiro kept playing piano, at places like the St. Moritz in Sparta. For more than three decades, he lived in North Fort Meyers and played clubs and restaurants on Florida’s West Coast.

What he loves most about performing, he said, is “watching the reaction of the people who are listening and the effect the music has on the people.

“It’s good to have the experience of music in your life, and meeting many wonderful people,” he reflected.

Shapiro returned to New Jersey in 2014. He still lives independently and still drives.

“I guess it is a gift of nature or gift from God,” he said of his longevity. His best advice: “Enjoy your life, extend your love of the arts and hope to have peace in the world.”

And never let your piano get rusty.

You can find Shapiro playing at retirement homes in Morris and Sussex counties, at holiday parties, at Shenanigans in Rockaway on Dec. 28, 2018 (reservations recommended) and, on Jan. 2, 2019, at Patrick’s Pub in Hopatcong–where he first performed professionally 84 years ago.

Happy Holidays, Hank. Keep the hits coming!

MORE 2018 HOLIDAY COVERAGE

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