Dozens turn out to parade celebrating WWII veteran’s 99th birthday

BOSTON — Well over 100 people surprised a WWII veteran on Sunday with a birthday parade by his nursing home. Ottavio Cerullo just turned 99 years old.

“We were going to try to plan something big for him, but then this all got in the way,” said Shari Sweeney, who works with Cerullo at the Compass on the Bay, an assisted living facility in Boston.

Sweeney says because of COVID-19 they could no longer throw Cerullo a birthday party, so she worked with Boston city leaders in the mayor’s office to organize a huge parade Sunday.

Cerullo watched from the front porch of Compass with his sister as dozens drove by, honking their horns with birthday messages.

“They just had no idea, he did not know this was coming,” Sweeney said. “He was speechless throughout the whole thing. I cried the whole time, it was very overwhelming because he doesn’t have any family aside from that one sister, so to see so many people coming together for him was awesome!”

One of those strangers in the parade was Jenny Wilson.

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“It was so awesome, it made you really smile, you know?” she said.

Wilson learned about Cerullo’s birthday after signing up to become a volunteer pen pal to veterans during this socially isolating time. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced the idea a few weeks ago, encouraging more people to write letters to veterans while many of them can’t see visitors during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Just to go out of your comfort zone, actually write a letter. Not type an email, you know what I mean, practice your penmanship, all that stuff,” Wilson said. “And just reach out to somebody random and say, ‘hey I don’t know you but I’m thinking about you, happy birthday!’”

Wilson wasn’t the only one to send Cerullo a birthday card. He received hundreds of cards from around the country when people learned he was turning 99.

Whether it’s a drive-by parade or a simple letter in the mail, volunteers say reaching out to a veteran is the least they can do right now for someone who did so much.

“There’s not a lot of World War II veterans left, so I just thought it was such an honor to be able to reach out to somebody like that,” Wilson said.

If you’d like to volunteer as a pen pal for a veteran through the mayor’s program, email or click here for more information.