The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death of retiree Ralph F. Vaccaro on April 16, two weeks shy of his 100th birthday and after days of visits from his vast and adoring family.
The world has lost a World War II medic, a concert violinist, an accomplished marine biologist, and, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the planet’s oldest active curler.
A scientist, a veteran, a musician, an athlete, a teacher, a devout Catholic, a coach, a father, a brother, an uncle, a grandfather and great-grandfather, and much more, Ralph was perhaps most devotedly a husband to his beloved Martha for 64 years.
Ralph was born on April 30, 1919, to A. Ralph and Adelaide Albertini Vaccaro, in Somerville, Mass., and was raised as one of four siblings on Pearson Road in the shadow of Tufts University. He would return for a brief tour of the home near the end of his life.
He graduated from Somerville High School in 1937 and stayed close to home to further his education, graduating first from Tufts in 1941, then the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a master’s degree in public health.
World War II delayed a distinguished career in the sciences. Ralph volunteered into the US Marines in 1943, but eventually served in the European Theater as an Army medic including the pivotal Battle of the Bulge.
He was notoriously reluctant to discuss his experience in Europe among his family, but recently opened up in an interview in the Falmouth Enterprise, describing an encounter with German spies, the horrors of the battlefield, and the sheer joy he felt when the war ended.
“I’ve nothing bad to report,” he said of his military experience. “I was a lucky guy and had some adventures.”
After a brief stint working in the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Ralph moved to Cape Cod, where he would live for the rest of his life.
Ralph began his career at WHOI in 1948 as a bacteriologist. In 1954, he was promoted to research associate. In 1963, he was promoted to associate scientist and in 1978 to senior scientist. From 1981 to 1982, he was the acting Biology Department Chair. His WHOI career brought him to seas across the world and his work was published in esteemed scientific journals and featured in the New York Times. With colleagues, he developed a groundbreaking method to measure carbon levels in the ocean which has been cited hundreds of times by subsequent researchers. He retired from WHOI in 1984. Yet the most fateful day of his career came during a coffee break early in his time at Woods Hole, when he met Martha Walsh from Centerville, a mathematician who worked in the same building.
The two were married soon thereafter, and moved to Hidden Village Road in West Falmouth. They raised six children and countless animals, maintained a lively bocce court, and shared a loving partnership that has served for decades as the bedrock of the family and a shining example of marriage for the generations that have followed.
Tragedy struck in 1987 when his son Tom died. Ralph and Martha took turns consoling each other and helping their children heal while the other grieved.
He was unflappable but deeply caring; social but never sought the spotlight. Friends and family were always welcome to join him in a game of bocce or poker, and he danced at grandchildren’s weddings deep into his tenth decade.
Somehow, he made time to groom a trove of passions and hobbies. He played the violin, a hobby from childhood, in the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra. He served as a volunteer firefighter. A lifelong athlete, he coached youth hockey and baseball. After retiring from Woods Hole in 1984, he worked as Falmouth High School’s chemistry lab instructor. Later in life, he joined the choir at his church, St. Elizabeth Seton in North Falmouth.
And at 87, he took up a fresh hobby altogether, joining the Cape Cod Curling Club at Martha’s urging. More than a decade later, still curling three times a week, he secured the world record – and a flurry of media attention – as the oldest active player on Earth. “You don’t stop playing because you get old,” he told Tufts Now in November, echoing a phrase cited to the playwright George Bernard Shaw. “You get old because you stop playing.”
Born just one week into Babe Ruth and the Boston Red Sox’ 1918 World Series defense, he was also a committed spectator of sports, especially baseball. As the years passed, the team’s failure to secure another championship over the diehard fan’s first 85 years became a point of consternation within the family.
Ultimately, he saw four.
In his final hours, he watched the Red Sox win a close game, devoured an entire pizza, enjoyed classical music, spoke and joked with his family, pretended to lead an orchestra, and squeezed Martha’s hand before saying he loved her.
Ralph is survived by Martha and his children: Chris and his wife Kathy; Addie; Jack and his wife Jacquelyn; Mark and his wife Leigh-Anne; and Pete and his wife Stephanie. He was predeceased by his brother Albert, sisters Adelaide and Virginia and son Tom.
He also leaves 19 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, several nieces and nephews, and a sprawling network of colleagues, neighbors, friends, teammates, and admirers. His granddaughter, Jennifer Vaccaro, currently works at WHOI in AOP&E as an engineer.
He will be terribly missed but forever celebrated for his near-century of service and devotion to the arts, the sciences, and to his nation, his faith, his town, and his family.
The family would like to thank the nursing staff at Falmouth Hospital for their compassionate care for Ralph, Martha, and their children at the end of his life.
Visiting hours will be from 4 to 7 p.m., on Monday, April 22, at Chapman, Cole & Gleason Funeral Home, 584 West Falmouth Hwy (Route 28A), West Falmouth. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, April 23, at St. Elizabeth Seton Church, 481 Quaker Rd, North Falmouth. Burial will follow at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.
In lieu of flowers, charitable donations can be made to the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra, online at capesymphony.org/give/donatetoday or by check at 1060 Falmouth Road, Suite A, Hyannis, Mass., 02601; or to the Falmouth Youth Hockey League by check at 9 Technology Park Drive, East Falmouth, Mass. 02536.
Information for this obituary is from the Vaccaro family.