When William Keyser of Perrysville celebrated his 100th birthday, he pronounced it one of the happiest days of his life.
“All of my family was together for a wonderful dinner at Carmody’s Restaurant, and I thought this is probably the last time we’d all be together,” he said.
Five years later, the Ross Township resident is preparing to celebrate his 105th birthday, and -- naturally -- another party is in the works.
Keyser was born July 9, 1906, in the Manchester neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s North Side. Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States and the Dow Jones Industrial Average topped 100 points for the first time in history that year.
“I remember when I was 5 years old living in Wilmerding and the streets were just mud and the sidewalks were made of wood, and we would watch a small Italian man who came each night and lit the gas street lamps,” he said.
His formal education stopped at age 11 after his father lost both legs in a train accident in Wilmerding. Keyser would pull his father to work in a wagon several miles each day so the elder Keyser could work as a plumber and train his son. By the time he was 13, as World War I was ending, he obtained a special driver’s license, which allowed him to drive a truck, as long as his father was sitting next to him.
At 15, Keyser tired of the family plumbing business and went to work as a carpenter, eventually becoming a cabinetmaker.
He met the love of his life in grade school, and on June 24, 1931, he married Margaret Wessel at St. Teresa Church in Perrysville.
“The day I got married was the best day of my life,” he said with a smile. “She was seven years younger than me. She was going on 18, and I was 25.”
The young couple’s marriage would be tested early when the economy failed and he lost his business.
“I owed $3,200 on my first house when it was foreclosed on during the depression, and she stuck with me,” he said. She would be by his side until her death in 2003. “Seventy-two years of marriage, those were the best years of my life,” he said. “We got along like two kids, never an argument. She had patience.”
William and Margaret survived the Great Depression, raising their daughter, Rosemarie, and sons William and Edward in the home he built in 1934 in Perrysville. Eventually, Keyser started what would become a very successful cabinet business. “I always had more work than I could handle,” he said.
In 1968, Keyser turned 62 and said he was ready to retire.
“I just had a funny notion I wouldn’t be around, so I said to the wife, I think I’m going to retire, and you and I are going to go traveling. We went to Hawaii four times; the last two times we were there for a month.”
Although he had retired from work, Keyser never slowed down. He would spend five to six hours a day in his cabinet shop, repairing antique furniture and making rocking chairs, birdhouses and other items to give away. He also doted on his seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
After nearly being involved in a traffic accident in 2005, Keyser said he decided to give up his driver’s license at age 99, but he continued his daily trips to his wood shop for three more years.
“I worked in my shop until I was 102, till I nearly lost my thumb on a saw, and that was a warning there, so my mind is still sharp.”
He now lives at The Haven at North Hills, an assisted-living facility, where the staff marvels at his longevity.
“He talks so much to us about his life, and he thinks his long life comes from always working, always caring for others and always treating people with respect,” said Carolyn Koerbel, a medication technician at the facility. “He’s a gentle man who has tons and tons of wonderful stories.”
Keyser has few complaints. “I feel good, just a little arthritis in my shoulder. I eat everything, no restrictions. I only take 3 pills a day; my buddy takes 14 at one time.”
Keyser knew how to work hard, but he said he also knew how to relax.
“I took my drink everyday, either a highball, Manhattan or a drink of wine,” he said. “I grew up during Prohibition, and that’s when everyone had something to drink.”