The Opposite of Social Distancing

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This was written for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in 2005. Long before COVID-19. A different time. A different world, even. It ran with a different headline.

I bumped into Al Durante at about 5:30 one morning at the Dunkin’ Donuts on East Lincoln Highway in Langhorne. I don’t quite remember all the details. It was early and I hadn’t yet had my caffeine. Either I wanted to make sure that I hadn’t cut in front of him, or vice versa but we connected. Mr. Durante insisted that I go first, though he warned: “Hey! Don’t eat the doughnuts!”

He motioned to his friend who, as with everybody else in the place, looked much worse off than the spry Mr. Durante. “We’re twins,” Mr. Durante explained, “except he ate the doughnuts.” The other fellow, who for the record is not related to Mr. Durante, smiled and shrugged. 

What else could he do?

Somewhere in that encounter, Mr. Durante mentioned two things. That he was a coach at Carl Sandburg Middle School in Levittown and that he was 79 years old.

“Do you believe it?” he asked. 

I did not, and it’s a fact with which Mr. Durante likes to surprise people. “I work out everyday for 20 minutes. I do push-ups and a little weights, but I don’t overdo it. I still play basketball. I still pitch batting practice.” Sporting a full head of gray hair, the ingratiating Mr. Durante never seems to come to rest. Rather, he sort of bounces on his feet, like a welter-weight boxer. He is one of the few people who can get away with saying, “I am a marvel.” 

Apparently, others agree. Mr. Durante will be honored as Man of the Year for his volunteer services by the Middletown Township Community Foundation on January 25. 

“He’s been doing things for nothing forever,” says Robin Kemmerer, the foundation’s vice president.

He does get paid by the Neshaminy School District though, at first, administrators were a bit skeptical when he approached them 20 years ago.

“I went to them and said, ‘I’m looking for a job.’ They said, ‘You’re 60 years old but maybe we’ll give you a try.’ Right? Like a substitute and coaching one basketball team, right? Now, I’ve got seven jobs there.”

Mr. Durante began life as an orphan. He was raised at Girard College, the boarding school which, though it’s called a “college,” goes up to 12th grade. 

“They treated me beautifully,” he recalls. “I graduated 1947, January. Believe it or not in sheet metal, which I never did anything with. Then I was going to travel to baseball with the New York Giants and at that time I was a pretty good ballplayer. I was an outfielder. Very good hitter. But then the Korean War came around.”

He was a salesman for the Yale & Towne forklift company on Roosevelt Boulevard, sold cars for some dealerships, and then went to work for a physical therapist. Then, came the job at Carl Sandburg.

“It’s been the best thing I ever did in my life.”

It certainly keeps him busy. Usually, he’s up at 5 a.m.

“At 6:30, I open the gym and get the basketballs out,” says Mr. Durante. “We have a volunteer program when the parents drop their kids off. I’m there to help out. I might get 75 kids there in the morning.”

In addition, he does three hours of cafeteria duty and coaches girls basketball, boys basketball, and Friday night adult basketball. He’s not so blinkered by his routine that he hasn’t noticed how kids have changed over the decades. They’re more spoiled, but Mr. Durante says he has no difficulty reaching “99.9 percent” of them. 

“I’ve never, ever written a kid up or sent anybody to the office, which is remarkable,” says Mr. Durante. “Because when I grab a kid, he knows who I am. I say, ‘Sit down, let’s discuss this.’ It works out.”

The kids admire his athleticism. There’s also the “grandfather card,” which Mr. Durante’s not above throwing. “They love that I’m a little older. When I walk in, every kid in that school talks to me.”

As with the case with anyone who’s ever instructed youngsters, Mr. Durante has learned much.

“They taught me to be very patient because being an athlete all my life, I’ve been aggressive,” says Mr. Durante. “But now these 13- and 14-year-old kids that need some guidance, right, they come to me. It’s very flattering.”

Mr. Durante is one of those people who are so upbeat, who so often say “God has blessed me” that they fool others into believing that their life’s been easy. He’s seen his share of sadness. Two of the five children he and Nancy, his wife of 57 years, raised, died young.

“I lost a boy, Steven, at 30, with cancer,” says Mr. Durante. “I lost a boy, Craig, with a heart attack at 40.”

The conversation sags for a long moment, but then he recovers. 

“I just think God’s given me extra energy,” says Mr. Durante. “He’s allowed me to be strong. Being very active I get a chance to get my mind clear. I’m kind of the guy everybody likes to be with.”

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