BROOKSVILLE — Charles Rahal had an inkling that his friends at Brooksville Elementary School were going to do something Wednesday morning to mark his birthday.
After all, it's not every day that you turn 99.
The longtime volunteer, affectionately known as Mr. Ted, guessed right.
When Rahal walked into the school's front office, happy staffers and student showered him with praise. Elizabeth Korn's kindergarten class sang for him.
Rahal, who likes to recite poetry, had some homespun verse ready for the occasion:
"Yesterday I was doing great at 98.
Today I'm doing fine at 99.
I hope you have cake
And we'll have candles that really shine.
Sing a song, dear friends of mine
And help me get started on 99."
Debbie Matherly, a front office secretary, offered reassurance. "We do have a cake, Ted, but the fire department from three counties called and asked us to please not light it!"
Rahal has been coming to the school three mornings a week for about 13 years. He works in the office area, performing tasks such as counting out sets of papers to go home with students.
One of his more important duties is to keep an eye on the coffee machine. A pinch of salt, Rahal confided, improves the coffee a bit.
Some days, he said, he gets to the school and there are no immediate chores for him to do, so he doesn't do anything. "But I do it so well,'' he said, "people say I'm good for nothing."
Rahal said he has survived a heart attack and heart surgery, but recent blood work indicated everything is okay. He lives close to the school and still lives alone. He says he can't cook too well, but "I survive."
He also intends to keep on volunteering. "If you spend all of your time relaxing, you're not worth anything,'' Rahal said. "Do something for someone else. You'll feel better."
He said he'll volunteer, "as long as I can make it and as long as they'll have me here."
Judging by the heartfelt efforts to celebrate his birthday, his place at the school is his for as long as he wants it.
Rahal seemed delighted that his two sons, John and Dick Rahal, his daughter-in-law Nancy Rahal and good friend Cheryl Griffin joined the celebration. Jerry and Nancy Rahal came from North Carolina; Dick Rahal traveled from New Mexico.
The sons explained where Rahal got the nickname Ted, offering a hint at his longevity. When Rahal was an infant, just home from the hospital, a relative looked at the baby and thought he bore a striking resemblance to President Teddy Roosevelt. The name stuck.
Family friend Cheryl Griffin owns and operates an assisted living facility in Brooksville where Rahal's wife, Pauline, lived for a time before her death in 1994 at 86. He stops by every Sunday to make a breakfast casserole, Griffin said, and keeps the residents supplied with vegetable soup.
Another surprise at the birthday party was an envelope from East High School in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where Rahal graduated in 1929.
Among the cards inside was a letter that included the line, "The Blue Bomber pride still lives on."
Rahal intends to do just that. He has made a pact with God, daughter-in-law Nancy Rahal said, that he was going to stick around until he is 100. At that time, he will renegotiate.
Asked what has led to his longevity, Rahal cited two important ingredients. "I keep breathing," he said, "And I never take myself too seriously."
Paulette Lash Ritchie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.