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    World’s oldest curler Ralph Vaccaro, WWII veteran and ocean researcher, dies at 99

    Mr. Vaccaro, who took up curling in his 80s, was a regular player with the Cape Cod Curling Club.
    Alonso Nichols/Tufts University
    Mr. Vaccaro, who took up curling in his 80s, was a regular player with the Cape Cod Curling Club. Above: Mr. Vaccaro in 2018.

    Morning after morning, Ralph Vaccaro stood on the ice and studied the path his curling stone would travel. Though he only took up the sport in his 80s, he brought nearly a century of life wisdom to each contest and the careful concentration of a scientist.

    “The ice tells you what you’re doing wrong,” he told the publication Tufts Now last fall. “Sometimes it’s very soft and sometimes it’s very fast. It takes you a while to find out.”

    Last June, little more than a month after turning 99, Mr. Vaccaro achieved a rare feat when Guinness World Records recognized him as the world’s oldest curler. He died Tuesday, two weeks shy of turning 100, from complications after falling while grocery shopping not far from his West Falmouth home.


    Curling — a sport most people only think about when the Winter Olympics rolls around — afforded him world renown, but it was only part of a life that was as full as it was long.

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    Mr. Vaccaro had been a World War II Army medic and an internationally recognized marine biologist, a pilot and a violinist, a father of six who died three days shy of his 64th wedding anniversary.

    He might as well have been speaking metaphorically about all his life’s pursuits last fall in the interview with his alma mater, Tufts University, when he said of his late-in-life sport: “You have to put the right amount of curl on it and the right amount of pressure.”

    “He was very, very patient,” said his wife, Martha.

    And despite his many accomplishments — including in marine biology at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where his research had ramifications for studying climate change — Mr. Vaccaro was also very, very humble.


    “He never put himself out as important, but he was so important,” said his son Pete of Andover.

    Pete added that while his father loved family gatherings, “boy, I’ve never seen someone so social that never, ever wanted to be in the spotlight. He never wanted center stage.”

    And yet, people naturally looked to Mr. Vaccaro for leadership, or simply looked up to him, whether in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge 74 years ago, or in the laboratories of Woods Hole, or on those sheets of ice where, in his 90s, he dazzled younger curlers.

    “He’s my hero,” Darryl Christensen, who runs the morning league for the Cape Cod Curling Club and, at 78, is a youngster compared to Mr. Vaccaro, told Tufts Now last fall. “He is always cheerful, and the most faithful morning attendee. I just hope to be like him when I grow up.”

    Ralph Francis Vaccaro was born in Somerville in 1919, a son of A. Ralph Vaccaro, a lawyer and accountant, and Adelaide Albertini, a homemaker. His parents were children of Italian immigrants, and while Mr. Vaccaro was growing up in Somerville, the family sometimes would travel to Boston’s North End for pizza.


    The Vaccaro family lived near the town line with Medford, within walking distance of what was then Tufts College, which Mr. Vaccaro attended after graduating from Somerville High School in 1937.

    “He could roll out of bed and get to class on time,” Martha said of her husband, who graduated from Tufts in 1941 with a bachelor’s degree after studying biology and chemistry.

    He subsequently received a master’s in public health from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Mr. Vaccaro served as a medic in the Army before working at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
    Alonso Nichols/Tufts University
    Mr. Vaccaro served as a medic in the Army before working at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

    During college, Mr. Vaccaro got his pilot’s license in hopes of serving as a Navy pilot, but low blood pressure prevented him from doing so. Instead, he enlisted in the Marines, only to be switched to the Army, which needed to increase its number of battlefield medics in preparation for the D-Day invasion. As a result, Mr. Vaccaro went through boot camp twice — with the Marines and the Army.

    He served in Europe, including during the Battle of the Bulge, and spoke little of his wartime experiences until he was interviewed in his later years by the Falmouth Enterprise.

    “If you met him on the street, the last thing he’d tell you is that he was a military veteran,” said his son Mark of South Kingstown, R.I.

    In the Enterprise interview, Mr. Vaccaro recalled a day in Belgium when soldiers in Jeeps fitted with machine guns rolled up to the dispensary where he was stationed. “I invited them in for coffee but they declined,” he told the newspaper. “It turned out they were German spies in Belgian uniforms.”

    Returning home, he worked for the state Department of Public Health before joining the Woods Hole research staff. He also served as a reserve officer with the US Public Health Service and did research in Utah on fallout during nuclear bomb tests in the late 1950s.

    While at Woods Hole, he met Martha Walsh, a mathematician in the meteorology department. “I took the data and read it off and worked up the mathematics for the scientists,” she recalled.

    They met on a coffee break and, after dating, married in April 1955.

    “He was just such a good man,” she said. “I don’t think he had an enemy in the world.”

    Away from work, Mr. Vaccaro coached baseball and youth hockey, played violin with the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra, and sang in the choir at St. Elizabeth Seton Church in North Falmouth. He also kept a backyard bocce court in prime shape for games with relatives or anyone else.

    “Bocce was a big part of our lives,” Mark said. “He always had the neighborhood over to come and play. It was his way to graciously socialize with the community.”

    Mr. Vaccaro “was never put out by company. He loved it,” Pete said. “Nobody had to call ahead. They were always welcome at his house. He’d be out on his hands and knees leveling the bocce court before people came over.”

    In 1987, the Vaccaros’ son Tom died in a car accident. “He folded me in his arms when that happened,” Martha said. “He was grieving equally with me, but he just held me.”

    In addition to his wife, Martha, and his sons Mark and Pete, Mr. Vaccaro leaves a daughter, Addie Drolette of Falmouth; two other sons, Chris of Reading and Jack of Sandwich; 19 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

    A funeral Mass will be said at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in St. Elizabeth Seton Church in North Falmouth. Burial will be in Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne with full military honors.

    Mr. Vaccaro had retired from Woods Hole in 1984 and then worked for years as a chemistry lab instructor at Falmouth High School. In his late 80s, an age when most of his friends were no longer alive, his wife gave him a gift of curling lessons during the winter months, which led to his involvement with the Cape Cod Curling Club.

    He was a quick study, but characteristically self-effacing about his talents.

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

    At the age of 99, he added, “I can’t say that I have reached the mastery stage.”

    Bryan Marquard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BryanMarquard.