One summer afternoon when she was young, Anna Capuano strolled along the Seaside Park boardwalk in Bridgeport with two friends. One friend had a pack of cigarettes, so the two others lit up and puffed away. They invited Capuano to do the same, but she refused.

“All I had to do was smell that smoke, and I said, No thanks,” said Capuano.

A lifelong decision to avoid tobacco no doubt contributed to the fact that Capuano celebrated her 100th birthday on April 2.

Capuano’s other advice for people who want to live long and stay healthy? Work hard, work long and keep yourself active and engaged. Capuano’s life has included raising 14 children and working much of that time at jobs that included cleaning houses, owning a pizza parlor and running a package store.

She spent her final work years transporting special-needs children to schools as far away as Hamden. Capuano retired at the age of 75.

These days, if Capuano has to stay home at 1279 Huntington Road for more than a day or two, “she gets antsy,” said daughter Teresa Procyk. But with 12 surviving children and an assortment of favorite pastimes, that doesn’t happen often.

Capuano doesn’t recall it being especially difficult to raise nine daughters and five sons, but there certainly were challenges.

“My mother and father both came from what was called Austria-Hungary,” she said. “They met in Bridgeport and got married in a church on Pembroke Street that is now gone.”

Capuano was the eldest of 10 children. Russian was spoken at home, and Capuano first learned English when she attended school. After later marrying into an Italian-American family, she learned Italian as well. Capuano met her own husband, Leonard, during a family funeral. He worked in construction as a plasterer but had a second job for a funeral home driving mourners to church services.

The Capuanos initially occupied a large house on Huntington Road, but with the help of several uncles and cousins, Leonard Capuano built a large home for his growing family on Cutspring Road. A big upstairs room was outfitted, dormitory-style, with four double beds for the girls.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Capuanos owned and operated two pizza restaurants in Bridgeport. Leonard Capuano would work during the day on construction jobs, while Anna Capuano managed the pizzeria and her mother or another relative tended her own growing family. At 6 p.m., he’d take over at the pizzeria and Anna would return home to the children.

Later, the couple purchased a liquor store in Ansonia. “That had to be sold when my dad got sick,” Procyk recalled.

Leonard died in 1965 at the age of 57. This was when Anna Capuano began the student-transportation job. She remained until the late 1980s.

“These were all kids who lived in Stratford,” Capuano said. “Back then, there were no buses or vans. The vehicle was a station wagon.” She kept at it, she said, because some of her own children were still in school. But she also had become quite fond of her daily charges and their families.

In fact, Capuano remembers everything about her life and work as enjoyable and enriching. “Big families are fun,” she said. “I was used to it because I was the oldest of 10 kids myself. I helped my mother with everything.”

Accordingly, it’s not surprising that Capuano does not wish to remain idle. Several evenings each week she can be found at her church, St. John the Baptist in Trumbull. She plays bingo and also enjoys supper at the parish’s  weekly fund-raising dinner.

“All the food is delicious and homemade,” noted Capuano.

“She also attends bingo at other churches and community organizations,” said Procyk. “She’s pretty good at it.”

Daughter Anna Scala runs Anna’s of Stratford, a long-established beauty salon in the Paradise Green area. So once every week or two Capuano stops in to have her hair done and chat with other family members and longtime customers. Because Capuano has lived in Stratford for most of her life, she knows plenty of townspeople.

For decades Capuano also sang in several church choirs, including Our Lady of Grace in Trumbull and St. John the Baptist. When she does stay home, Capuano keeps busy making crocheted blankets for the VA hospital as well as for local organizations’ fund-raisers.

Capuano has 28 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren. Among the former and the latter are two sets of twins. Family gatherings in this clan are large, festive and frequent.

“I cook breakfast every Sunday morning for the whole family … it’s open to whoever shows up,” said Capuano. The crowd that does show up might number anywhere from 10 to 30 people, and everyone brings bakery goodies to share. When the food runs low, Capuano just cooks more bacon, eggs and toast for the happy crowd.

As if that were not enough, every Monday evening is “Girl’s Night” at the house Capuano shares with Procyk; she has her own separate apartment. The women of the family gather for coffee, cake and conversation. The number of people fluctuates, but it’s always a happy crowd. Anna Capuano wouldn’t have it any other way.

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In previous decades, reaching the age of 100 was so unusual that Dannon filmed television ads in Soviet Georgia, interviewing centenarians who attributed their longevity to a yogurt-rich diet.

Not anymore. Today, people aged 100 or more are the fastest-growing population segment, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. On March 17, Stratford’s George Kalanich marked his centennial followed by Anna Capuano’s on April 2.

Soon, yet another Stratford resident will likely celebrate a 100th birthday. If you’d like the person’s story told, email editor@stratfordstar.com.