'I was very lucky': Suburban World War II veteran looks back as he turns 102
Enter Lionel and Phyllis Rothbard's apartment at Avidor Glenview and a table decorated with dozens of congratulatory cards immediately catches the eye.
"This is just starting," Phyllis says. "They come in seven or eight a day."
They might need a bigger table.
Nearly a week remains until Col. Lionel Rothbard, who served at the Battle of the Bulge and the Allies' Normandy invasion during World War II, turns 102 years old on March 22.
His secret to longevity is simple to say, difficult to achieve: "Be good to everybody," he said.
"He's a very good man," said Phyllis, his wife of 66 years and 12 years his junior.
She found that out when she and Lionel first connected at a wedding on Chicago's South Side, where Lionel's mother and father settled in 1923, having emigrated from London.
"She lived in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and I would go up there. She had an uncle, and we used to talk about going fishing," Lionel recalls.
"They were looking for girls," Phyllis countered, with a grin.
Married on Nov. 22, 1956, they have two children, Debbie and David, and two adult granddaughters, Monica and Erika.
"I don't know because I never asked him, but I don't think he was the kind of kid who would steal a piece of candy from a candy store," Phyllis said.
Perhaps, as the son of a Jewish baker, Lionel understood the value of sweets.
Out of Hirsch High School in Chicago, Rothbard entered the Army in July 1942. After graduating a year later from the Medical Administrative Corps in officer candidate school at Camp Barkeley, Texas, he was assigned to an Infantry division in Europe as an ambulance platoon officer.
"When we went overseas, I was with a collecting company," he said.
"When he says, 'collecting company,' they picked up the wounded and took them to different hospitals," Phyllis said. "They went to five countries. He was in Luxembourg, Belgium, France, Germany and Austria."
His unit launched from Southampton, England, to Normandy, France, the night after Allied forces landed on June 6, 1944. He commanded 10 ambulances.
"We were trying to go in and do what we could," he said.
He doesn't say much about the war, from which he was discharged as a captain in March 1946 with honors including a Bronze Star, four Battle Stars and a Combat Medical Badge.
Rothbard years ago wrote a letter, posted on the website of the Battle of the Bulge Association, about an Honor Flight he took out of Midway Airport early on Oct. 12, 2011, while the Rothbards were living in Lombard.
Upon returning to Midway late that night his group was welcomed by thousands of people, his wife said.
"It was indeed the parade and welcome we had never received in 1946," Lionel wrote.
Remaining in Active Reserve, Rothbard attended United States Army Command and in 1968 graduated from General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, attaining the rank of colonel.
On the G.I. Bill, he enrolled at DePaul briefly, then switched to Northwestern.
Lionel went on to a sales career with Johnson & Johnson. Working with McNeil Laboratories, a firm under the Johnson & Johnson umbrella, Rothbard was "a detail man," he said, calling on Chicago physicians, describing products, leaving samples.
Along with numerous framed military decorations and his ticket from the last Chicago White Sox game at Comiskey Park (he prefers the old park, though he was honored at Guaranteed Rate Field a couple years ago), in Rothbard's office hangs a metallic reproduction of a 1980 letter from Johnson & Johnson.
"You, as a member of the McNeil Laboratories team, have earned the right to be known as the best in the business," it states.
Rothbard retired from both military service and full-time sales work in 1986.
Phyllis, a University of Minnesota graduate, saw their daughters get off on the right foot then worked 19 years as an office manager.
From their days as a young, married couple in a newly purchased house in Dolton, the Rothbards moved to Hyde Park, then San Diego before returning to Illinois -- first in Lombard, then to The Breakers at Edgewater Beach in Chicago. Within the last year, they moved to Avidor Glenview.
Phyllis will throw her husband two 102nd birthday parties. One, at the Avidor on March 22, a second with family in their apartment or at a restaurant.
"I went along with the flow, that's all. I was very lucky. I was very lucky when I was in the Army. I was just very fortunate," Lionel said.
"You were fortunate that you met me," Phyllis said, the loving dig of a long-married couple.
"Very," he answered.