Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Native of Spain lives long life of work, food and family

SAN ANTONIO — Until his death this week at 101, Jose "Pepe" Pujol began each day with a thick slice of toasted Cuban bread, slathered with cream cheese and jam, then moving on to whatever pastries his wife had for him: eclairs, danishes, Italian almond biscuits. He washed it down with a syrupy glass of cafe con leche, a shot of espresso with a heroic dose of milk and sugar.

Mr. Pujol, a refugee from Spain to Cuba, then Cuba to America, where he worked two or three jobs seven days a week until his wife forced him to retire at age 85, was healthy until a few weeks before he died Wednesday (Sept. 15, 2010). He took a vitamin and one pill a day for his blood pressure, which was a little low. He walked unassisted until he had lived for a century.

"People always ask, 'What does your father eat? What's his secret?' " said his son Carlos Pujol, who is 50 and lived across the street from his father and mother, Rafaela, who is 89.

"Believe me, you don't want his diet," the son said.

Meals were salami, prosciutto, cheese, olives, roasted meat and potatoes, always slathered in a sauce, marinara or cream, because Mr. Pujol needed something for his bread to sop. He ended the day as he began it, sweetly, with cakes.

"He ate what he wanted when he wanted," Carlos Pujol said.

His son attributes his father's vigor to good genes and the life he lived as a young boy in a village in Catalonia, drinking fresh goat's milk every day, working outdoors, eating nothing processed with chemicals. Mr. Pujol's father was a Shakespearean actor, a barber, newspaper editor and mayor, so go the stories Mr. Pujol told his son. Stories were Mr. Pujol's language and those of his childhood were his favorites to tell. He adored his grandparents, who spoiled him. If he didn't like what his mother served for dinner, Mr. Pujol sneaked out of the house at night and dashed through a field to his grandmother's house, where she fed him his favorite dishes.

Mr. Pujol told his son that Spain, battling with tribes for control of Morocco, rounded up young boys to make them work in munitions plants, their little hands perfect for polishing shell casings, and to cross mine fields, as they were too light to set off the detonators. Mr. Pujol was taken, but his family used its influence to get him back. Still, his father worried for his son and took him on a boat to Cuba. The voyage was supposed to take two weeks, but lasted three months because of two hurricanes. Smallpox broke out and three passengers died.

Mr. Pujol never went on a boat again.

His father soon sent for Mr. Pujol's mother and two sisters. Mr. Pujol grew to be a handsome man, 6 feet tall, slender.

"Like Errol Flynn," his son Carlos said.

Gregarious with a keen eye for business, Mr. Pujol did many things — lumber yard owner, coffee distributor. He married, had a son, divorced. He married Rafaela, who said women turned to butter when they danced with Mr. Pujol. They had two sons. They escaped Cuba during the Communist revolution and landed in Miami with nothing but each other and a few small bags.

Mr. Pujol, who spoke Catalan and Spanish, knew no English but began working whatever jobs he could find. He went to New York, trying to find a man who once promised him a job. He couldn't find that man, but ended up working as a chef at a convent in Long Island. He had never cooked before, but he learned. He slept on a cot and sent his paycheck to his wife and sons in Miami, who joined him three years later.

Mr. Pujol never did only one job and never called in sick. He was a doorman, a janitor, dishwasher, handyman. As an apartment superintendent, he saved anything he found on the curb — discarded furniture, clothes — and, with his sons, salvaged them to give to other refugees.

Mr. Pujol became an American citizen in 1975, something of which he was very proud, and throughout his life he sent money to Cuban families on their way to America. Some paid him back. Others didn't. Mr. Pujol never said a word about money owed to him, unless that person asked for more without paying the first debt. He didn't believe in revenge, but he didn't forget slights and he never let a man wrong him twice.

"A man is his word," Mr. Pujol always said. He did business with a handshake. "A man who dishonors his name not only insults himself, he insults his ancestors."

In the little time he didn't work, Mr. Pujol rarely stopped moving. He walked several miles every morning and loved shoveling snow, out there in his thin windbreaker, the bracing cold making him feel alive. He missed the snow when Rafaela made him move to Florida — first Miami, but after many of their friends and relatives passed away and they were alone, they moved to San Antonio, building a house near their son. Mr. Pujol liked this small town. It reminded him of Catalonia, the way people lived and treated each other. The mayor came to Mr. Pujol's house on his 100th birthday to give him a proclamation from the city.

In the days before his death, Mr. Pujol was uncharacteristically tired and didn't want to eat. His wife and son could hear him talking in his sleep to his parents and grandparents, gesturing with his hands, singing to them in Catalan.

Mass will be said for Mr. Pujol at 11:45 a.m. Wednesday at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in San Antonio.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

Native of Spain lives long life of work, food and family 09/17/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 9:23am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Trump sprinkles political attacks into Scout Jamboree speech

    GLEN JEAN, W.Va. — Ahead of President Donald Trump's appearance Monday at the National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, the troops were offered some advice on the gathering's official blog: Fully hydrate. Be "courteous" and "kind." And avoid the kind of divisive chants heard during the 2016 campaign such as "build …

    President Donald Trump addresses the Boy Scouts of America's 2017 National Scout Jamboree at the Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve in Glen Jean, W.Va., July 24, 2017. [New York Times]
  2. Trump, seething about attorney general, speculates about firing Sessions, sources say

    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has spoken with advisers about firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as he continues to rage against Sessions' decision to recuse himself from all matters related to the Russia investigation.

  3. John McCain to return to Senate for health care vote

    WASHINGTON — The Senate plans to vote Tuesday to try to advance a sweeping rewrite of the nation's health-care laws with the last-minute arrival of Sen. John McCain — but tough talk from President Donald Trump won no new public support from skeptical GOP senators for the flagging effort that all but …

  4. Last orca calf born in captivity at a SeaWorld park dies

    Tourism

    ORLANDO — The last killer whale born in captivity under SeaWorld's former orca-breeding program died Monday at the company's San Antonio, Texas, park, SeaWorld said.

    Thet orca Takara helps guide her newborn, Kyara, to the water's surface at SeaWorld San Antonio in San Antonio, Texas, in April. Kyara was the final killer whale born under SeaWorld's former orca-breeding program. The Orlando-based company says 3-month-old Kyara died Monday. [Chris Gotshall/SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment via AP]
  5. Blake Snell steps up, but Rays lose to Orioles anyway (w/video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Blake Snell stepped up when he had to Monday and delivered an impressive career-high seven-plus innings for the Rays. That it wasn't enough in what ended up a 5-0 loss to the Orioles that was their season-high fifth straight is symptomatic of the mess they are in right now.

    Tim Beckham stands hands on hips after being doubled off first.