100-year-old South Philly native still living adventurously

Known as "Joe the Butcher" at his grocery store near 7th and Oregon, Joe Schiavo served in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II before marrying his wife Mary more than 75 years ago.

Mary and Joe Schiavo at their West Philly home earlier this month. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Joe Schiavo is ready for the next party.

The South Philly native and World War II veteran who was known as “Joe the Butcher” at his former grocery store on Oregon Avenue, recently turned 100 years old. And he’s showing no signs of slowing down.

His family and friends celebrated his incredible accomplishments and longevity during a birthday party in September with nearly 80 people, where Schiavo drank (a few) beers and danced the night away.

“There was a great crowd and boy we had a great time,” Joe said. “There were people I hadn’t seen in ages. They were coming out of the walls.”

Schiavo grew up near 6th and Wharton Streets and met his wife Mary before he served in the war. Once he returned to Philadelphia, the two started dating. 

“She came looking for me because I was hard to get at the time,” Joe said with a laugh.

Mary, who is now 99, tells a different version. 

“A friend of mine introduced him to me,” she said. “I was sitting on her step and all the guys were hanging out across the street on the corner. He started to cross the street and my friend said, Mary, I want you to meet this guy. He asked me if I had seen a certain movie. I hadn’t and he asked me to go see it. We made a date and that was it.”

Seventy Five years later, they’re still happily married. Over time, they’ve learned the secrets of getting along in tight quarters. They raised four kids in a Southwest Philly row home and always managed to keep it together, even when they disagreed. 

“Arguments,” said, Mary who grew up at 7th and Fitzwater. “You got to get it out. I’m telling you, you have to get it out. You say what you have to say, then it’s over.”

Mary was a stay-at-home mom and cooked regularly with fresh food from Joe’s Market, which opened in 1947 and was family owned until 1992. Joe would spend his days lifting and carving heavy slabs of meat for long hours at the store between 6th and 7th Streets on Oregon Avenue. The store carved out its own niche in the neighborhood and had a steady flow of steady customers. 

“We had everything you wanted to buy,” Joe said. “My sister (Jean) was the manager and ordered everything under the sun. If someone came in and ordered fly paper, we’d have fly paper next week. We had stuff scattered all over the place up to the ceiling.”

They also allowed customers to pay later if they were facing hard times.

“My father kept a book, so if you came in and didn’t have any money, you went into the book,” said daughter Layna. “Then when you got paid, you came back on Friday to pay him.”

It didn’t always happen that way. 

“A lot of them beat me out,” Joe said. “My sister and I were two goodie-goodies. We’d give it away.”

Son Joe later took over the business before the family decided to rent out the property in 1992. The younger Joe had been working at the store since he was a child. 

“I was working since I was like 12,” he said. “I had my own money so I was independent. I was there for 28 years. My brother lasted almost a day.” 

Both father and son admitted that working at the shop was grueling. 

“It was murder,” the elder Joe said. “I wouldn’t tell anybody to do what I did. We stood up all day. I worked my days, let me tell you. The pieces of meat weighed more than me. I only weighed 128 pounds.”

Handling frozen meat caused arthritis in his hands and he’s carried around a piece of shrapnel in his leg since his three years of service in Europe. Schiavo was an Army anti-aircraft machine gunner in the Battle of the Bulge. 

“I was everywhere,” Joe said. “You name it. I was there right to the end of the Battle of the Bulge. Our company knocked out 50 planes.”Schiavo returned stateside as a hero although never received a Purple Heart for his wartime injury. He admittedly picked up a few bad habits around that time, including gambling and smoking. Schiavo said he smoked between three and five packs of unfiltered Camel cigarettes a day for 75 years before he decided to quit cold turkey when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

“I carried that last pack around for five years before I finally threw them away,” he said.

Now, he’ll still drink one ice cold Budweiser with dinner each night and he ups the ante when his family goes away on vacation. 

“He never really deprived himself of anything,” Layna said. “He eats everything. He has a great appetite and he has a beer with dinner every day. He lives life to the fullest every single day.”

Joe and Mary Schiavo with their four children at Joe’s 100th birthday party in September. Contributed photo

Schiavo completes sudoku puzzles and word puzzles every day and cheers on the Phillies every night. He was still driving his own car up until a few months ago and Mary still cooks most nights. Joe said he’s not sure what the secret to their long lives is.

“Boy I wish I knew, I’d make a lot of money,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s peanuts or crackers, but it’s got to be something.”

He did have a scare about 10 years ago. One hot August day, Schiavo was mowing his lawn and decided to do the neighborly thing and mow each of the adjacent properties as well. That’s when he got his first warning just two weeks before his 90th birthday.

“He mowed his lawn, finished next door, and started doing a third  when he said he heard a hissing sound and it started sounding like coffee percolating,” his son Joe said. “He called the doctor and went to the hospital. He needed a quadruple bypass. Normally at my dad’s age, they would just call a priest. But he was in such good shape, they went through with it.”

It ended up a triple bypass because the shrapnel prevented access to a vein in Schiavo’s leg, but the surgery was still a success.

“When I came out, I was in tip-top shape,” he said. “I felt like nothing happened.”

Joe and Mary Schiavo now have 10 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren and the entire crew got together for a photo last Christmas Eve in Southwest Philly.

They’re hoping to have another big bash next October when Mary reaches 100. It could be double the fun of Joe’s party last month. 

“All the friends of his that were no longer here, they’re families all came to the party,” Layna said. “Fingers crossed we get to do it all again next year.”