by Vince EVANS
Every morning he walks to Prince of Peace Church in Niagara Falls, New York, for 8:30 a.m. mass. For many people who are 86 years old, a mornings walk might be enough exercise, but not for Charlie Fekete - not by a long slap shot.
Charlie Fekete is retired, a decorated war veteran, a husband who with his wife Julia will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this December, a father with 8 children and 45 grand and great-grandchildren. But unlike others his age - and many younger than that - he stays fit and active in a most unconventional way - by playing hockey, real hockey...twice a week. And if you think thats an achievement, theres more.
Charlie Fekete has been a competitive person since the days he and his brother helped their parents load the wagon and hook up the team of horses for their move from Buffalo to Niagara Falls in 1918. As a youth, he played football in municipal leagues, fast-pitch softball, basketball and volleyball. He played baseball at Hyde Park and knew Sal Maglie before he turned professional. He attended the Sugar Street School, Niagara Falls South Junior and graduated Trott Vocational High School where he learned to be a millwright. He landed his first (and only) job at Carborundum, making abrasive wheels and stayed there 42 years, never having taken a sick day.
In 1941, just twenty days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Charlie and Julia were married; eight days later, he was in the Army. He was assigned to the 3rd Armored Spearhead Division in Europe; it was nicknamed Spearhead because the 1st Army orders so frequently read: The 3rd Armored Division will spearhead the attack. That competitive spirit and drive, so prevalent in his youth, would sustain him during conflicts of far greater consequences.
Charlie Fekete soldiered his way through the chill of war in Normandy, Northern France, the Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe. His division spent 231 days in combat and is credited with the decisive destruction of 14 enemy divisions. Spearhead took 76,720 prisoners - five times its own total strength - and destroyed 6724 pieces of enemy equipment including 1794 tanks and 942 special purpose guns, while holding its own casualty figure to 10,371. Spearhead achieved so many distinctions during World War II that an entire section in the book of Ripleys Believe It Or Not is devoted to the 3rd Armored Division.
Wounded during battle, carrying a friend to safety through farmfields during a mortar attack in France, and other acts of valor and bravery earned Charlie Fekete the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, Good Conduct Medal and French Liberation Medal. Last year, he received a commemorative medal from France acknowledging his divisions role in the invasion of Normandy and liberation of France. While Charlie is proud of his service and of his division, his medals are kept in small closed boxes on his bookshelf, as if in silent honor to others not as fortunate to return home. But other medals can be found on the walls of his Niagara Falls home, in frames that he made.
In 1985, at age 70, Charlie began competing in the New York State Senior Games and the Salvation Army Olympics. For the next 11 years, he dominated his events in the games like no other before or since. Having entered events including swimming, 100 and 200 meter dash, 1500 meter race walk, shot put, javelin, long jump and high jump, Charlie Fekete amassed an incredible total of 132 medals. He won his last gold medal two years ago, bringing his gold count to 94; the remainder is a mix of silver and bronze. During the games of 1994, he won 11 gold medals - a New York State record that continues unequaled to this day. In addition, he is the recipient of 4 Presidential Sports Awards - 3 from George Bush and 1 from Bill Clinton - citing his athletic and fitness regimen. There are numerous ribbons and other citations in those frames but Charlie didnt earn them - his wife Julia did. She garnered high marks in her competitive events of swimming, billiards, bocce and frisbee.
For the last 30 years Charlie has played hockey, starting at age 57 with the Niagara Falls Old Timers Hockey League...never missing a game! Prior to that he was a figure skater until a friend gave him a pair of hockey skates. He plays left wing on teams in two leagues, playing Sunday and Thursday each week and wears number 11 after his favorite player, former Sabre, Gil Perreault. He takes a regular shift on the ice, scores less frequently than he would like, and has even sustained cracked ribs from a check into the boards during a game several years ago. But Charlie shrugs it off, saying thats the price one pays when competing with some younger guys - 40 to 50 years younger! His passion, play and teamwork earned him Most Valuable Player honors during a senior hockey tournament three years ago.
Off the ice, Charlie doesnt just sit and sharpen his skates; he is involved with lawn bowling (winning multiple trophies in competition), fishing, hunting, gardening, and his real trophies - his grandchildren. Hes active in the Catholic War Veterans, Disabled American Veterans, 3rd Armored Association, and is president of the Echota Club.
His secret to life? Keep moving. Perhaps that explains his attraction to hockey. Sunday, April 29th is Charlies 87th birthday. Its also game night. For Charlie Fekete, thats icing on the cake.
Vince Evans is a freelance writer.
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