ELSMERE — The life story of Elsmere resident Ray Firmani is one that can serve as an inspiration to anyone with its story of service above self, love and family.
That’s because Mr. Firmani, who celebrated his 100th birthday at the Delaware Military Museum in Wilmington on Sept. 19, has led a life that has touched a number of others along the way.
He was honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross after flying 25 missions over Germany and France in World War II, raised his family through a 46-year career with the DuPont Company and, over the years, has become a noted photographer.
There is only one book — “Against All Odds: The Ray Firmani Story” — out about his life, but there is conceivably enough material and accomplishments for a set of volumes.
“When you look back, time flies,” Mr. Firmani said. “The nice thing about it is as you get older, the old friends go, but if you don’t have new friends, it can get pretty lonely and pretty bad. I believe that strangers are friends that we haven’t met yet.
“I think the secret of longevity is to keep active, keep working and getting friends. You have to have a purpose in life. If you feel that nothing is worthwhile, the next thing you know, you’re gone.”
Mr. Firmani had several special events take place for his centenarian birthday, including having Sen. Thomas Carper on hand at his home to honor his service and present him with a letter signed by himself, Sen. Chris Coons and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester.
“Ray Firmani is about to turn 100 years young!,” Sen. Carper wrote on Facebook. “This Elsmere resident and WWII veteran wouldn’t reveal his secret to a long and healthy life – but he is an American hero and an inspiration to us all. From a Navy veteran to an Army veteran, Bravo Zulu Ray!”
There was also a drive-by parade in front of his Elsmere home that he wasn’t expecting on Sept. 25 for his milestone birthday.
“I have lived in Vilone Village of Elsmere since 1950,” Mr. Firmani said. “It’s a most wonderful town with wonderful people. My neighbors planned a surprise party with a town parade of fire engines, police cars and townspeople.
“They had sirens wailing and horns blowing. I saluted and waved to them as they paraded by my home. I was honored and grateful for the warm reception. It was a day to remember by the best of people.”
Mr. Firmani’s positive outlook includes reaching out and meeting new friends online, driving occasionally, trimming his hedges, riding a bicycle — and now enjoys nothing more than talking with children, adults, teachers and veterans to help others understand, firsthand, the experience of our nation and its soldiers during World War II.
His stories include being on his first mission as a B-17 co-pilot in the 486th Heavy Bombardment Group of the mighty 8th Air Force in World War II, flying 25,000 feet over the German city of Homberg during the Battle of the Bulge, when his first son was born 4,600 miles away in Omaha, Nebraska.
Twenty-four missions and one Distinguished Flying Cross later, Mr. Firmani flew home to settle down in Wilmington’s Little Italy neighborhood to resume his career with DuPont.
Back then, he never spoke about his experiences in the war that ended in 1945. Not because it brought back painful memories, but because, as he said, “I was too busy raising a family and pursuing a career managing DuPont’s Jackson Laboratory photographic studio and later the Chambers Works television studio to dwell on the past.”
Mr. Firmani has been a Delaware resident for 95 years. He is the son of poor Italian immigrants who had to assume the role of head of the household soon after his father died when he was only 5. He went to Wilmington High School.
Much of Mr. Firmani’s existence remains filled with memories and photos of his wife, Elaine, whom he married two weeks after they met. They spent 56 years together before she died.
He also still has a strong affinity for taking to the skies and flying, according to author Mitch Topal, president of the Delaware Press Association, who wrote the book about his remarkable journey.
“For his 99th birthday, we took Ray up in an SNJ-4 trainer, the same kind of aircraft he flew in advanced flight training at Eagle Pass, Texas, before the war,” Mr. Topal said.
Mr. Firmani decided to stick to the ground for his 100th birthday, though he admits he still gets a thrill when he meets new people, along with author Mr. Topal, as they attend book shows to discuss his story.
“People love (my book) and I don’t know why … well, I think I do know why,” he said. “Mitch did a wonderful job and we had a terrific editor (Katherine Ward) and it showed not only about the war, but what the people were doing.”
The book “Against All Odds: The Ray Firmani Story” has received state and national awards in the categories of Writing: Nonfiction/History, Book Design and Book Editing.
John Taylor, the executive director of the Air Mobility Command Museum in Dover, was one of a majority who gave Mr. Firmani’s book five stars out of five.
“Very refreshing to read a book that goes to the heart and soul of a real person, interweaving personal joys with tragic sorrows during the World War II era,” Mr. Taylor wrote. “‘Against All Odds — The Ray Firmani Story’ is based on true life events pulled from the memories of a man who survived to tell his story! Highly recommended.”
For more information on the book go here.