Century of ‘happy’

Bruce Ritenburg Jr. celebrated his 100th birthday on Oct. 1. And boy, does he have a lot to show for it.

Ritenburg was born Oct. 1, 1913 in Pennsylvania. A few months later, his family moved to Tennessee, where Ritenburg spent most of his boyhood. When he was 13 years old, his family moved to Dunkirk because his father went into business with a friend. Like many, Ritenburg came to call this place “home.” At 100, he still does.

“I loved it when we moved here,” Ritenburg said. “When I lived in Tennessee, I owned a sled. But you know, I never had any snow to use it!”

Finding snow in Chautauqua County is easier than finding consonants in Alphabet Soup, and Ritenburg’s sled never had time to collect dust.

He found the white stuff so invigorating that he learned to ski, and eventually went on skiing trips around the U.S. and in Europe.

Aside from the snow, Ritenburg enjoyed the time he spent at Dunkirk High School, playing football and running on the track team.

He also became a member of Boy Scout Troop 1 when his family moved to Dunkirk, an organization he would be involved with his whole life. He graduated from DHS in 1931.

Ritenburg’s future may have been bright, but the country’s outlook in the ’30s was grim. The United States writhed in the grip of the Great Depression, and even affluent families had to make adjustments. Ritenburg, though, made it through that economic gauntlet and came out the other side shining.

“I went to Brown,” he said. “My mother had connections at Brown and in the area of Providence, Rhode Island. My maternal grandparents lived there. So I got in, and to save money, I lived with them.”

Which, Ritenburg says, wasn’t terrible at all. He wasn’t stuck in a drafty dorm room, eating mystery meat with lumpy gravy like all the boarders.

“My grandmother was a good cook!” he said. “You bet she was!”

Ritenburg graduated in 1935, and with the ink still wet on his mechanical engineering diploma, he moved to Niagara Falls to work at Castner Electrolytic Alkali Company, which is now Olin Chlor Alkali Products. Ritenburg said that his job was to figure out how to best make paper from wood pulp. While in Niagara Falls, he also made quite the impression on a young pre-kindergarten teacher named Frances Sue Fitzgerald.

Mechanical engineers don’t tell romantic stories. They are logical, factual, and describe events as they would describe mechanical processes: step by step. This love story is no different.

“How do you meet a girl?” he asks. “You look around for one, you find one you like, and then you say hello.”

That hello led to roughly 50 years of marriage and three children: Bruce H. Ritenburg III, Matthew L. (“Larry”) Ritenburg and Sara R. (“Sally”) Ritenburg (now Strauser).

Ritenburg and his wife continued to live in Niagara Falls for a few years after they married in 1938. Then, Ritenburg got a life-changing call from his father.

Bruce Ritenburg Sr., Ritenburg’s father, had started the NOG company in 1932. This Dunkirk-based manufacturer made flavor syrups and novelty ice cream coatings for soda shops and other commercial retailers. With business picking up, Bruce Sr. needed some help. His son, a mechanical engineer with the brains and disposition to help make the company successful, was his logical choice. Bruce Jr. accepted the position and headed back home to Dunkirk.

Ritenburg eventually took over for his father, becoming president of the company and overseeing operations. One might think that would keep a person’s schedule full to the point of bursting, but Ritenburg’s civic-minded attitude led him to becoming a part of countless service projects and organizations in his community.

“I never left the Boy Scouts,” Ritenburg said. “I became chairman of the original Lakeshore Council. Then I became part of the larger group and became president. I received the Silver Beaver Award in recognition for service.”

In addition to the Boy Scouts, Ritenburg was also a member of Shorewood Country Club, serving as president for two terms. Important decisions and changes were put into effect in those years, including making the management of the club a paid position rather than volunteer work.

Dunkirk-Fredonia Kiwanis also wanted Ritenburg for their president, and like always, he answered the call. When the club separated into the Dunkirk club and the Fredonia club, he became president of the Fredonia Kiwanis. He remained an active member there for decades.

The Salvation Army, the American Legion and the Masons all boast having Ritenburg as a member or leader at some point. He received a Certificate of Lifetime Membership from the Salvation Army in 2012. He also holds a 65-year Membership Certificate from the Masons.

It seems natural, then, that a man like Bruce Ritenburg Jr. would also answer one more call of duty. Back in 1943, Ritenburg signed up with the United States Navy.

“I was never drafted into WWII,” Ritenburg explained. “I was married with small children, so they didn’t call my number.”

But Ritenburg was not one to ignore a situation in which he could be of assistance – especially when it was his country that needed help.

“I signed up with the Navy in 1943,” he said. “There were openings for people with professional backgrounds. I was what they called ‘a 90-degree wonder.’ That means I went straight to being an officer.”

Ritenburg went on to say that most Naval officers were in the European and Pacific Theaters, commanding units that were engaged in fighting Axis powers. That meant not enough officers were stateside, overseeing administrative and supply issues. He didn’t go into active combat; the Navy needed him at home.

“I was a lieutenant. My job was to visit Army munitions plants that provided the Navy with munitions. We didn’t have our own munitions plants. When the war started to really heat up, they cut back on the rate at which they were shipping them, and the Navy needed more. We got them, though,” he said.

After his two years in the service, he was honorably discharged, and filed away the experience as another task successfully completed.

Later in life and after a divorce, Ritenburg remarried. He enjoyed many years with his second wife, Edith Law (Buza), until her death in 2011. In addition to his own children, Ritenburg was stepfather to Bonnie Davis, Deborah Michalak and John Buza. His family has expanded to include well over a dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

After a long life and many experiences, Ritenburg did have a few words of practical advice. To have peace at home, just try to get along with one another.

“We tried to have a family where we all agreed. And as long as I stayed out of my children’s way, they were happy!” he joked.

Ritenburg, befitting an engineer, had a very practical plan for celebrating his big century birthday:

“I just want to be here. That’s all I have to worry about!”

Ritenburg also got together with friends, family and fellow Legionnaires for a party at the Cassadaga American Legion on Saturday, Oct. 5 where he was honored as the Legion’s oldest member.