The Oldest Mayor in America (97!) Is Running for Re-Election: 'I Love My Job, It Keeps Me Alive'
When asked what's his secret to remaining vibrant at 97 years old, Vito Perillo smiles and says: "I love my job. It keeps me alive, actually. It keeps me going."
Perillo is thought to now be the oldest mayor in America and has no plans of retiring. Seeking a second term in his small New Jersey town — the World War II veteran had never run for office before a shocking upset win (at 93) against a two-term incumbent — he is still going strong, heading out in his car for a workout after a recent interview.
If Perillo wins Tuesday's nonpartisan election against a trio of challengers — including a retired teacher and volunteer, Ellen Goldberg; businessman Michael S. Miles; and Brock Siebert, a councilman — he'll serve until he is 101.
Speaking with PEOPLE from his office at the Borough Hall of Tinton Falls, dressed in a suit and tie, Perillo looked back on the last four years and the course of his life. "The thing about my age is that, when people read about it and hear about it, they're encouraged," he says. "They say, 'If he can do it …' I get a lot of letters. People all over the country, actually."
Four years ago, Perillo, motivated by what he felt were high taxes and scandals plaguing the police department, campaigned by knocking on every door in this Jersey Shore town of about 18,000 (and wearing out one-and-a-half pairs of shoes in the process).
But this year, "I can't walk the way I used to," he says.
Instead, Perillo's campaign manager, a retired postal employee, mailed out 4,000 flyers and hand-delivered another 2,000 — admittedly "quite a comedown from last time," Perillo says.
The flyers describe the mayor's accomplishments over the last four years, which include reducing municipal taxes by 11.6 percent and streamlining the cost of the police while adding two patrolmen. As The Washington Post notes, Perillo says his other accomplishments include a new park and traffic light as well as road and sidewalk paving.
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"In the four years I've been here," says this retired electronics engineer with pride, "we haven't missed one garbage pickup. We have been on top of every snow event."
One of the major issues in this year's race is what to do about the local library, which has been closed since 2017 because of mold.
Perillo, a chipper wisp of a man who is quick to greet guests with an offer of a cup of coffee, partially credits his vitality to physical activity: He works out twice a week, walks and loves golfing with grandson Michael. He also drives his Honda Accord to town hall each day.
The warm relationships Perillo has developed with the people at work are another reason for his energy, providing welcome connections following the 2013 death of his wife of 64 years, Mae.
"They became like a family or me, you know?" he says. "They're like my brothers, my sisters, my daughters. We get along so well. It gives me a place to do something, to get up in the morning."
Perillo was born in the Bronx in 1924 to Italian immigrants and easily recalls the names of his teachers at Evander Childs High School — "and all of them had Ph.D.s," he says. This electronics buff was drafted into the Navy for World War II soon after high school and landed a job as an technician on a ship in the South Pacific.
"I got the shakes after I saw a lot of the action," he recalls. "It was scary. But while it's going on, you know, you do what you have to do."
Following the war and after earning his college degree, Perillo worked for 38 years at the Defense Department, retiring in 1980. In 1960, he and Mae had settled in Tinton Falls and raised two daughters, who still live nearby. Perillo is now a grandfather of four, with six great-grandchildren.
He's particularly close to grandson Michael, 32, of Morristown, who also serves as a frequent golfing buddy. Four years ago, at 93, Perillo was best man at Michael's wedding and goes out to lunch every Wednesday with 28-year-old granddaughter Marlana.
He has some advice for those who may think I'm too old to do something: "You do what you got to do. I take every day day-by-day. I don't think about tomorrow."
Perillo lives alone in the three-bedroom home where he and Mae raised their kids, whom he visits for regular dinners. Daughter Anna Mae, an attorney and writer, also brings over home-cooked meals.
"I don't eat a special diet," he says when asked about tips for his long, healthy life. Adds Anna Mae: "He has his hand on the pulse on everything that is going on in the town. He's so engaged."
And that is what keeps Perillo going.
"Sunday nights, he so looks forward to going to the office," his daughter says. Perillo decided to run again because he knew if he retired, "some of the people who were going to run for mayor, for one reason or another, I wouldn't want them as mayor."
He's proud of his accomplishments over the last four years "and," he says, "I want to keep it going that way."
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