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Good to Know: Friends got a second chance at love to carry them into their 90s

Tony Gillistro holds up a photo of himself

Tony Gillistro holds up a photo of himself and Dorothy Campanelli from when they first started dating in 2005. "Who can you find at 91 and 95 that knows everyone you know ... and knows your entire life?" Meg DeLeo, Campanelli's second eldest daughter, said. Credit: Hartford Courant / TNS/Sofie Brandt

It was December 1947, just days before New Year’s Eve. Twenty-one-year-old Anthony "Tony" Gillistro had just come home from the Marine Corps and was paying his childhood friend, William Manocchio, a visit on Standish Street in their old neighborhood in Wethersfield, Connecticut.

"The guys were getting together for a New Year’s Eve party. We all just came home. That was, I think, ’47. And I didn’t have a date," Gillistro said. "Billy said, ‘Why don’t you ask my sister?’ So, I asked Dottie; she asked her father and he put the sign of the cross."

Since Dorothy Campanelli, known as "Dottie," was just 17 years old at the time, her old-school Italian father said she was too young for Gillistro, leaving him without a date and the two of them just friends.

"I’ll tell ya — she had a crush on me when I was a kid. Because when I used to go over her brother’s house, I could see her and her girlfriends peeking out of the door to see us. We were the older guys," Gillistro said. He says "she was always like a sister, and Billy would kick the bologna out of me if I tried to date his sister."

'I was free'

Nearly 75 years later, the two are in their 90s and nearly inseparable. As they sit comfortably in Campanelli’s home, they look back on their lifetime of memories together, from playing outside in the neighborhood as children to their first date at a Friendly’s restaurant in 2005.

Gillistro had just undergone knee surgery and was recovering in the hospital. His wife had died just a few years prior and he "had no inclination to date again, I was up there like 79, 80 years old." But once Campanelli came to visit him in recovery with a mutual friend, he began to reconsider and called his daughter for advice.

"After that, I said ‘Judy, Dottie came to see me. You think I should call her?’ And she said, ‘Yeah Dad, what’ve you got to lose?’"

Though dating at their age wasn’t what they expected, Campanelli found there was no reason not to. "There were no obstacles. My kids were all grown. I was free," she said.

Since then, the couple never spends more than three days apart. Every chance they get, they are creating more memories together: attending events at the Wethersfield senior centers, sharing Wendy’s meals on the ferry ride to Rocky Hill, even traveling to Florida to meet with Campanelli’s friends.

"Dottie, she don’t like to sit. She’s always go, go, go," Gillistro said. "She likes to go here, there and everywhere. Me, I’m satisfied sitting on my rear end. I have always been like that. We’ve been to a lot of places."

Interwoven lives

The couple’s bond is everything that her five children could hope for.

After Dottie's husband, Al Campanelli, died in 2002, they worried whether their mother’s lively spirit would return.

"We were so happy when she started dating Tony because she got her spark back," Meg DeLeo, Campanelli’s second eldest daughter, said. "I think that’s why they’ve lived this long and are thriving in their old age. They are thriving in their 90s."

Her relationship with Gillistro came as no surprise to her children, as their families have been intermingled since their days on Standish.

"Throughout our whole life, even growing up, we would always go see the Gillistros," Mary Beth Welch, Campanelli’s eldest daughter, said. "He’s like part of the family. He’s like my second father."

"The families always kept in touch and stayed in the Wethersfield area. [Tony] always was called whenever the families needed work on their house," DeLeo said.

In 1982, Tony helped Dottie and her husband renovate their new home on Bittersweet Hill, just minutes down the street from his home on Bunce Road. Tony was always just a phone call away to help repair and fix anything in need.

With nearly two decades of dating under their belt, the couple continue to enjoy daily moments of laughter, love and a lifetime of memories.

"It’s rare to know somebody that long and know someone from childhood. She went her way, I went my way, but we still kept in touch. We knew where everybody was to the point that what was inevitable came," Gillistro said.

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