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A Century of Progress: One Man's Life Journey

Comfort Keepers In-Home Care in Buffalo Grove, Illinois.

Comfort Keepers caregivers have the privilege of working with many people who have had amazing life experiences. When our client, Dennis “Dennie” Trettel, a resident of the Sedgebrook Senior Living Community in Lincolnshire, celebrated his 100th birthday recently, he was kind enough to share some of them with us.

You Say It’s Your Birthday?

Dennis "Dennie" Trettel.COVID-19 was not going to stop this celebration. Dennis “Dennie” Trettel, the guest of honor, sat at the head of the table, surrounded by a socially distant group of well-wishers. There was a cake, of course, along with some flowers and balloons — typical birthday swag. Pandemic restrictions prevented a large gathering, so 29 family members and friends compiled a congratulatory video for the event. The only elements that made this gathering truly unusual were the medical masks the participants wore and the large number “100” that decorated the dining room wall.

Dennie Trettel had reached a milestone that few Americans (less than one percent) will ever see: his 100th birthday. Though the number of centenarians in the United States has grown in recent decades, that kind of longevity is still a remarkable and somewhat rare feat.

“I can’t tell other people how to live, but I know it’s important to take care of your body,” Dennie said. “Exercise regularly, eat properly — I never smoked, hardly drank. But, without my good genes, I wouldn’t be here. My doctors tell me not to get too puffed up about being 100, because it’s really my genes that are responsible.”

Perhaps. However, after learning more about Dennie’s life so far, it’s hard to believe that his attitude and determination don’t have something to do with it.

 * * *

Dennie Trettel remembers exactly where he was on June 19, 1936, the night German boxer Max Schmeling knocked out Joe Louis, the American “Brown Bomber,” in competition for boxing’s heavyweight championship. He was in front of the radio, at home in Duquesne, Pennsylvania. When the much-anticipated fight ended, Dennie knew he had to share the news with his father — immediately.

“My father worked for the railroad as a dispatcher,” Dennie recalled. “He would be up in a tower so he could see the trains coming. He had to push a button to divert the trains onto the right tracks. I ran a mile from our house to the tower where he was stationed and climbed the stairs — it was about 100 feet up — to tell him what happened. We were both sports fans and that was big news because the fight took place in Yankee Stadium.”

For the majority of Americans, the Louis-Schmeling fights also came to symbolize the struggle between democracy and Nazism. Louis' victory in their second matchup in 1938 made him one of the first true African-American national heroes. These fights were historic events, and just two of the many that Dennie would personally experience.

* * * 

An only child, Dennie was born on February 10, 1921 to Nellie Connally and Peter Joseph Trettel. “I always felt I was lucky,” he said. “My mother died in childbirth, but I survived. The only thing I know about her was that she was a spritely Irish lass. I was raised by my grandmother and two maiden aunts until my father remarried when I was five years old.”

Dennie Trettel, age 8.Growing up in that era was a much more unsupervised experience than it is today. As a young boy, Dennie had to cross a set of train tracks to walk to the Catholic school he attended. One day, as he was heading home, he decided to try to beat an oncoming train by sprinting across the tracks. “I tripped and I fell on the rail,” Dennie recalled. "There were no gates at the crossings in those days. A watchman saw what happened. He ran over and picked me up and saved my life. If it wasn’t for him, I would have been killed. So, again, I was lucky.”

Add to that experience the notion that young Dennie was often trusted with walking to the local gas station to purchase a quart of gasoline — and then tote it home in a glass jar. “This was during the Depression,” he said. “My father was a devout Catholic and we only used enough gas in our car so we could drive to Mass on Sunday morning. I think it cost about 25 cents a gallon back then.”

As time went on, Dennie became a choir boy, an altar boy and a good student. Peter Trettel kept his son on the straight and narrow, with good reason. After having watched his own father succumb to black lung disease — the occupational affliction that killed many Pennsylvania coal mine workers — Peter expected Dennie to excel in school to get ahead. (Peter had been able to leave his own job in the coal mines by using a newspaper to teach himself telegraphy. This drive and ambition earned him an entry-level position with the Pennsylvania Railroad.)

“My father was not very happy if I didn’t have straight As,” Dennie said. “A few times, I missed that mark, but by the time I graduated from Duquesne High School, I was third in my class.”

While his father might have been his chief motivator during his youth, Dennie believes that it was “divine intervention” that led him to many of his life’s major milestones. “Somebody up there likes me, and must have been looking out for me,” he said. Dennie’s ability to seize opportunities for enrichment also contributed to his success.

* * *

In 1941, Dennie was a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh. To pay his tuition, he worked as a soda jerk at Charlie Coleman’s Drug Store and as an apprentice in a print shop. Thanks to his father’s railroad job, he had a pass to ride the train from Duquesne to Pittsburgh (about 45 minutes) and a street car (about 15 minutes) from the train station to the university. After class, he returned home and went to work — a schedule that left little free time to explore the campus or join a fraternity. 

Then, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. “The war changed everything for me,” Dennie recalled. “The Navy came to the university and offered commissions to the engineers when they graduated. I was studying petroleum engineering, so I volunteered and got into the military.” Luck was with him until he failed his physical, due to a previously undetected hernia. Surgery followed. While recovering, Dennie learned that the Navy’s program was already filled up — and his poor eyesight prevented him from qualifying for other assignments.

However, developments in science-based warfare were percolating behind the scenes. German forces had successfully invaded Poland in 1939 and France in 1940 on days when weather was good. It became apparent to the Allied forces that the enemy was using meteorological data to its strategic advantage.

Meteorology, or weather forecasting, was a science that played a seldom-acknowledged role in World War II. Knowing future wind and weather patterns, even if only a few days in advance, allowed for better planning of shipping and airplane routes and for spying and reconnaissance.

“I asked the military where the need was, and they said they wanted meteorologists,” Dennie recalled.  So, Dennie volunteered for duty as an Army Air Forces Weather Officer and was sent to Boca Raton, Florida, to wait for a military school to be set up at a local country club. Finally, a lucky break…

Not quite. The spots at the swanky country club were full when he arrived, and Dennie was sent to live on a nearby Army base. However, when it was determined that the enlisted personnel at that base would be sent to a military school in New York City — and those at the country club would go to another school in Chicago — his luck changed again, in a major way.

Dennie and Jeanne Trettel, 1940s.It was in New York City that Dennie would meet his future wife, a nursing student named Nancy “Jeanne” Lynch, who was working at Bellevue Hospital. On their first date, they went dancing at the McAlpin Hotel, where Johnny Mercer’s Orchestra was playing. Six months later, on March 4, 1944, they were married in Manhattan. That same year, Dennie had graduated from New York University with a degree in meteorology and “Jeanne” had earned her degree from the Bellevue Hospital School of Nursing. They were just 23 and 21 years old, but things moved quickly during wartime.

The stakes were high for everyone. Dennie, as a member of the Allied forces, knew that his work was crucial. “When Hitler invaded Poland, skies were clear, roads were dry, weather was perfect,” he recalled. “Several months later, two German battleships were trapped in the Bay of Biscayne by British Royal Navy. The fog rolls in, the ships escape through English Channel. The Allies woke up and realized that Hitler had a secret weapon. It wasn’t a V-2 engine or a jet rocket: It was the weather.”

Dennie and his fellow Army Air Forces Weather Officers were a key source of intelligence for the U.S. military. “We forecasted for the navigation school,” he said. “We sent out planes to take photographs of the stars at night. It helped military planes land in a place with good visibility.”

D-Day newspaper coverage.Weather forecasts became so critical to the military that President Eisenhower relied on them to schedule the D-Day invasion, which is considered a turning point in World War II. A team of forecasters from the Royal Navy, British Meteorological Office and U.S. Strategic and Tactical Air Force worked together to predict when the weather in the English Channel would clear enough to allow the Allies to land on the Normandy coast.

It was on D-Day, June 6, 1944, that Allied forces launched the largest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare. Some 156,000 American, British and Canadian forces landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the heavily fortified coast of France’s Normandy region. Codenamed “Operation Overlord,” these Allied landings marked the start of a long and costly campaign to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation. By spring of 1945, the Germans would be defeated — and that was lucky for a lot of people.

* * *

Even in the armed forces, Dennie Trettel was an achiever. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, was promoted to first lieutenant, and was a captain when he left the service. As the war was winding down, Dennie, one of the 10,000 meteorologists who had been trained to devote their scientific acumen to the military effort, was ready for a new challenge. And luckily enough, the military stepped in to provide one.

Carl-Gustaf Rossby, Time magazine cover“It was then that Carl-Gustaf Rossby, the meteorologist who set up the training program said, ‘What are we going to do with all these guys?’” Dennie recalled. “Rossby was very important. Before the war, there were only 500 meteorologists in the entire United States. Rossby decided: ‘Why couldn’t business and industry use weather forecasters as well?’ He basically created a new industry where one didn’t exist. Rossby thought meteorology could help business be more profitable and it would create future employment for new people as well.”

And so, Dennie was assigned to serve as a military meteorologist in New Orleans. This too, sounded like a bit of good fortune…until he arrived to find that location fully staffed. He was then sent to San Marcos, Texas — not quite as glamorous a destination, but one that would dramatically change his life.

“Six months after I arrived, my future business partner, John Murray, joined the staff of forecasters. If I had stayed in New Orleans, I would never have met him,” Dennie said. “My life would have been totally different. Our business, Murray & Trettel, would never have existed; so again, I was lucky.”

* * *

Post-War Productivity and Growth

After their stay in Texas, Dennie’s military assignments took the Trettels to a few more notable locations. Early on the morning of July 16, 1945, when the young couple was living in Deming, New Mexico, they heard an incredible boom, something bigger and louder than any noise they had ever heard. They later learned it had been the first-ever atomic explosion set off as part of the “Trinity” nuclear test at the nearby Alamogordo Test Range.

The mushroom cloud at Alamogordo.Nicknamed the “gadget,” the plutonium-based implosion-type device created a crater over 300 meters wide. Three weeks later, on August 6 and 9, 1945, nuclear bombs — one of them based on the Trinity design — were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing tens of thousands of civilians immediately and many more from radiation exposure later.

When World War II finally ended, Americans were eager to start a new chapter in their lives. Dennie Trettel and John Murray were no exception. In 1947, the two veteran Army Air Forces Weather Officers moved to Chicago, which was John’s hometown. They opened a two-room office for their fledgling meteorology-consulting company, Murray & Trettel, on North Dearborn Street. (Dennie and Jeanne cashed in their last $25 savings bond for startup money.)

It was a major gamble, not only because they were launching a business with scant resources, but because the Trettels were new parents. Their daughter, Scottie, had arrived in 1946. Dennie came home from the office every evening and cared for the baby while Jeanne went to her night job at Woodlawn Hospital. (She earned 95 cents an hour as a registered nurse.) Without their dual income, Dennie would not have been able to continue with Murray & Trettel and the company would have failed.

Murray & Trettel started making industry-specific weather forecasts on a real-time basis. “John’s job was doing the research and bringing in the clients,” Dennie said. “Mine was to make sure we kept them. And back then, there was no Doppler radar. We were collecting all the data ourselves.”

Their work was used to schedule municipal snowplowing, providing advance warning of snow and ice so the crews could get out in time. Murray & Trettel's weather forecasts told utility companies when to expect a surge in demand for gas and electricity. 

Brach's advertisement.They even helped the popular Chicago candy maker, Brach’s Confections, with a weather-related quandary. “We had a long, hot spell in the city and they couldn’t ship chocolate because of the heat wave,” Dennie said. “It was $250,000 worth of chocolate candy that they were trying to move. I convinced them to hire us when I said, ‘Look, you know what we can do. Would you trust a weather report from someone you didn’t know and bet $250,000 on it?’ We told them when to expect the heat wave to break, they scheduled their shipments, and everything worked out.”

Murray & Trettel were trailblazers in the industry. They were the first company to use operational color coding to indicate the severity of predicted weather conditions. This allowed clients to quickly and easily determine the potential impact on their operations. Through Murray & Trettel’s forecasts, businesses found the weather was no longer a natural hazard that had to be accepted.

Dennie’s daughter Scottie, who today is a retired research scientist living in upstate New York, remembers the company’s stellar evolution. “Steel mills needed scrubbers on their smokestacks when barometric pressure was low, so they became clients,” she recalled. “Murray & Trettel got involved with the first weather satellites. They also earned a lot of awards from the American Meteorological Society because they were cutting-edge.”

Given Dennie’s propensity for self-enrichment, it’s no surprise that his company succeeded. “My father is very intelligent,” Scottie said. “He’s a Type-A overachiever. Very early on, he attended the Dale Carnegie courses, and in 1953, he was the U.S. Prepared Speech Champion.”

Dennie and Jeanne had a second daughter, Kim, in 1953. They moved from a small apartment on the South Side of Chicago to a four-flat in Skokie. In 1957, after years of scrimping and saving, they were able to purchase a split-level ranch house with a one-car garage in suburban Deerfield. The Trettels were, like many other mid-century American couples, very proud of their first real home. Money was tight — their dining room table and coffee table were built out of old wooden doors. Dennie worked long hours to establish the business and be a good provider, but he was always home for dinner with the family.

Jeanne devoted most of her time to raising the girls, participating in Brownie and Girl Scout troop activities along with them. She also joined the Garden Club and took short-term jobs to supplement the family’s income. Perhaps channeling his own father’s ambition and drive, Dennie was known to make his daughters write out their personal goals for each coming year.

By the early 1960s, Murray & Trettel had grown in reputation to the point that Dennie was asked to be a fill-in for P.J. Hoff, the local CBS weatherman, when he was on vacation. “My father was on the 10 p.m. weather, after ‘Gunsmoke,’” Scottie remembered. “The sponsor was Meister Brau beer, and he did his own commercial. At the end of his segment, he had to pour a glass of beer on live TV, lift it up as if he was toasting the camera, and say the tagline: ‘Ahhh! Meister Brau!’”

Dennie and Jeanne Trettel.During their marriage, Dennie and Jeanne were very happy. They had two wonderful daughters, a successful business and many friends. They took up the hobby of square dancing, then moved on to ballroom dancing. “My father said my mother was the best dancer he had ever known, and she was so light on her feet, it was like dancing with a feather,” Scottie recalled. When they weren’t traveling around the country, the Trettels spent many an evening dancing at the Chevy Chase Country Club on Milwaukee Avenue.

Murray & Trettel also evolved, moving its offices first to Skokie and then to Northfield to accommodate its growing team. Forty years after its founding, the company grossed almost $3 million in sales and employed 25 people. The gamble that Dennie and Jeanne had made with their last $25 turned out to have been a good one.

By then, their daughters Scottie and Kim had both finished college. They each married and had families of their own. Scottie had a son, Alexander; Kim had a son, Jason, and a daughter, Jaime. Now a grandmother, Jeanne had her own life during the day: she loved physical conditioning and working out. “My mother always had the same slim figure and weighed the same as she did the day she was married,” Scottie said. “My father was always proud to be seen with her.”

Dennie Trettel on horseback.When the founding partners of Murray & Trettel retired in the 1980s, Dennie bought a big, copper-colored quarter horse named Boulder. He boarded the horse in nearby Gurnee, and at the age of 65, Dennie became an accomplished horseman. He learned to jump fences and also engaged in dressage, a highly skilled type of riding performed in exhibition and competition.

Apparently, Jeanne was gratified by this turn of events. “My mother informed my father after his retirement that she had married him for better or worse, but not for lunch,” Scottie said. “They both continued their individual activities during the day, but spent the evenings together."

Ever adaptable, Dennie took on major challenges in his personal life with aplomb. His youngest daughter Kim lost her fight with breast cancer in 1993 at age 40, leaving behind a husband, two children, and an extended Trettel family whose world would never be the same.

When Jeanne was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1996, Dennie made it possible for her to live comfortably in their Deerfield home for the duration of her illness. As Jeanne’s needs evolved, a family friend came on board to serve as an additional caregiver, bringing her newborn baby along with her each day — much to Jeanne’s delight. In 2007, Jeanne Trettel died peacefully in her sleep. In accordance with her wishes, her brain was donated to Chicago Northwestern Memorial Hospital for Alzheimer’s-related research. (It was only fitting, as the Trettels were a family whose destiny had been much-influenced by new developments in science.) Dennie and Scottie spread Jeanne’s ashes at Mount Baker, one of her favorite childhood spots near her hometown of Saranac Lake, New York.

Two years later, Dennie made the decision to downsize and move to Sedgebrook. “He no longer needed the four-bedroom house,” Scottie said. “My father was planning for the future. Sedgebrook offered independent living, but also assisted living and medical facilities — everything he might need.”

Today, Dennie has balance issues that impact his mobility and macular degeneration prevents him from reading without a magnification device. Hence, his need to work with Comfort Keepers caregivers. None of it has stopped Dennie. “I’ve been studying Spanish for many years,” he said. “I listen to Spanish CDs and I’m also teaching myself to touch type.”

His family has also grown: Dennie now has three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Scottie’s son and grandchildren live near her, close to the Canadian border in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Kim’s children and grandchildren all live in the southern part of Illinois near Carbondale.

The 100th birthday gathering.Last February, when Dennie celebrated his 100th birthday at Sedgebrook, the party was scaled down, due to pandemic restrictions. Dennie, the ever-dignified businessman, dressed in a suit and tie and presided over the festivities. What does a man who’s been around for a full century think about the COVID-19 outbreak? “I’ve never seen anything like it in my lifetime,” Dennie said. “I’m looking forward to getting back outside, getting back into the world and resuming normal activities."

Dennie, as always, is taking his setbacks in stride. Could this be one of the keys to his long and productive life? “I can’t tell anyone else how to live, but I can make two recommendations: pay yourself first; and whenever you read, use a marker to highlight the most important parts.” Valuable advice from a man who has learned that even when things seemed to be going awry in his life, divine intervention was pointing him in the right direction.

“I was a lucky guy,” Dennie said. “Everything fell into place, I believe because somebody was watching over me. Every time I needed something in my life, it suddenly showed up.”

* * *