Van Etten has one very special resident who, as of Aug. 24, is 100 years old. Robert Stein has been looking forward to this birthday for several years, and as it grew closer he spoke of it frequently. One-hundred years is a long time by any standard, and Stein, known to his friends as Bob, has been in quite good health for most of them. As the actual date approached, he did take a tumble and scared all those who love him, but he did not break any bones, for which everyone gave thanks. He did bruise some ribs and his elbow, but otherwise was fine for his big day.
So who is Robert Stein? He was a farm boy in Pennsylvania who left school early to run the farm after his father became ill. While his father was healthy, he and his dad milked 40 cows by themselves before the farm had electricity. As the oldest of 11 children, he learned responsibility early. He left home at 21 and tried several jobs. Coal mining underground was not for him after working outside his entire life.
Next he worked in a steel mill on the labor gang, doing work that took strength but not skill. Part of the steel mill work involved moving railroad freight cars of raw materials or finished products around the mill with a steam engine. Shoveling coal into the engine’s furnace was Stein’s first job on a steam engine, and he liked it. (He was also much better at it than the average fireman.) After a year as a fireman he became a brakeman and eventually took those skills and went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. On his first run over the mountains, the temperature was 37 degrees below zero, and he nearly froze to death up on top of a moving train, adjusting the air brakes. It was so cold the kerosene oil in his lantern froze.
Two years later Stein became a conductor on the train and held that job for the remainder of his career. Being a conductor meant memorizing a thick book of rules and knowing the speed allowed at every curve on every route. It also involved particular attention to detail or lives would be lost. His career ended in 1978 when a huge locomotive rammed into Stein’s caboose due to a signal failure. He was severely injured and recovered very slowly over seven years, but he did recover. His doctor told him he had to walk three miles every day or he might lose his ability to walk. Stein paid attention and followed that advice for the rest of his life. He does not do three miles at age 100, but he does do 897 steps every day in laps inside his house.
Stein was never able to go back to his old job, however, so he retired from the railroad. Due to his attention to detail and doing things right, he was asked to teach safety classes to new employees. He and his wife, Martha, moved to Van Etten in 1988. He loved to hunt and he got a buck in his early 90s. How many folks can make that claim?
In 1995, he was inducted into the Railroaders Hall of Fame in Strasburg, PA, and today a plaque in his honor hangs in that hall.
Stein is also a WWII veteran, having served in General Patton’s army in Belgium, France and Germany. Following the war he attended the Nuremberg trials. When asked what his secret to such a long and healthy life is, he replied: stay active, exercise, work hard, don’t drink or smoke. Stein has followed his own advice his entire life.
Aug. 24 was a Monday, so Bob’s family planned a weekend of celebrations for him on Aug. 22 to 23. Children and grandchildren came to be with him for Saturday’s excitement. His daughter and son-in-law, Bobbi and Don Brock, planned a big birthday parade for him, in conjunction with the VFW Post 8139 in Van Etten. They brought him down to Banfield Square in the heart of Van Etten, where Assemblyman Phil Palmesano read a proclamation congratulating him on his 100th birthday.
A Civil Air Patrol unit from Ithaca that includes four Van Etten youth provided an honor guard for him. Each one approached him where he sat on the pavilion and gave him a formal salute and thanked him for his service. (Stein is very proud of his WWII service. He was a member of the VFW, the American Legion, and, while his health allowed, served as an honor guard at the funeral of other veterans, as well as at Memorial Day observances.)
A canopy was set up curbside for Stein so that he would have a great view of his birthday parade. Police cars led off, followed by possibly 100 motorcycles, classic cars, maybe 75 modern cars, a group of horses and fire trucks from numerous fire companies. Stein loved his parade, and it was a very happy occasion. Because he misses being able to worship with his church family nowadays, his daughter brought him over on Sunday after church to Christ the King Fellowship.
All those in attendance (and some via Zoom) were able to greet him in front of the church and sing Happy Birthday to him. An example of Stein’s commitment to the Lord that he shared with this reporter—when he was a teenager, if his dad could not take him to church, he would walk the five miles there and back himself. The only time he missed going to church was when the snow was four or five feet deep and he could not get through.
Now that Stein has made it to 100, those who love him are hoping for a 101st birthday party next year. One-hundred was his big goal, and he was looking forward to all the birthday cards, which he thoroughly enjoys reading. His family’s goal this year was 200 cards, and as of Monday the count was 205!
If you would like to give him a birthday present, his family suggests making a donation in his honor to the VFW Post 8139, 3936 Wyncoop Creek Rd., Van Etten, NY 14889. They will use it to provide turkey dinners around Thanksgiving or Christmas to veterans, retired auxiliary members, retired firefighters and seniors who are shut-ins. The VFW Auxiliary used to provide just 12 to 15 meals each year, but they expanded it to 52 last year and anticipate delivering up to 100 meals this year.