Feeling the earth shake in the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake, seeing the ruins of Nagasaki and Hiroshima after they were destroyed by atomic bombs, and becoming the youngest real estate broker in the state of California – these are all events experienced by Santa Barbara resident John Riffero, whose life now spans 104 years.
During an interview with the News-Press on Saturday at his home on Laguna Street that he has shared for 72 years with his wife, Emma Riffero, the centenarian said “God was good” to allow him to live so long.
Born in 1915 in Renton, Washington, Mr. Riffero left the United States for Italy in 1919 with his older brother and mother, who was ill and required a “change of climate.” While the three of them lived by the Alps for five years, Mr. Riffero’s father worked for a coal mine in Renton. Before Mr. Riffero returned to the states, his father moved to Santa Barbara and found work as a gardener.
Mr. Riffero couldn’t speak English when he, his mother, and brother reunited with his father in 1924, and was thus kept in first grade for two years. While attending Franklin Elementary School, his two best subjects were geography and arithmetic, as the correct answers were the same in Italian as in English.
After only a year in his new home, the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake hit and his family had to sleep and eat outside their house in case of aftershocks.
“It kept on rocking, not big, but it kept on rocking … for I think it was 10 days or two weeks,” he said.
A graduate of Santa Barbara High School, Class of 1934, Mr. Riffero’s teenage years occurred during the Great Depression. After high school, he followed in his father’s footsteps and worked the only job he could find. He became a gardener for the house across the street when the neighbor’s previous gardener died.
“I didn’t know a plant from a tree, but anyway, I learned and I worked there for a year,” Mr. Riffero said.
Another short-lived job followed in Los Angeles, where he worked as a singing waiter in a nightclub called the Paris Inn, where actor George Brent would spend his non-working hours drinking and womanizing. The singing and waiting was interrupted when Mr. Riffero’s mother passed away in 1937, forcing him to return to Santa Barbara to look out for his father, who was living alone as Mr. Riffero’s brother was married by then.
One day, while walking down State Street, Mr. Riffero came across the manager of a local security title company, with whom he was acquainted. The manager asked him what he was doing for work now that he was home.
Mr. Riferro recalled, “I hadn’t decided what to do, because that was the depression, you know? So he told me, ‘Why don’t you go into real estate?’ He says, ‘I’ll help you out if I can.’ “
For about a month, Mr. Riferro went to the manager’s office to learn about the real estate business. After taking and passing his real estate exam, which he remembered as “very difficult,” he got a letter from the state governor congratulating him on becoming California’s youngest real estate broker. Mr. Riferro worked as a broker for 45 years thereafter.
Though he ceased to be a broker in the 1980s, Mr. Riffero did not stop working despite acquiring properties that supplied him with income. In 1939, he became a notary public and did not stop until 2015, at the age of 100. Though most people would retire well before then, Mr. Riffero said it wasn’t until he was a century old that he became physically unable to keep working.
“When you’re a hundred years old, number one, the vision is blurred vision, and I wasn’t alert like I used to be,” he explained.
When asked what he’s most proud of in life, Mr. Riffero immediately said meeting his wife, Emma Riffero. The 79-year couple met one day in 1939 at Carpinteria State Beach and wrote letters between Santa Barbara and Mrs. Riffero’s hometown of Dunsmuir. They married in 1940 and have two children, 9 grandchildren, and 9 great grandchildren.
A veteran of World War II, Mr. Riffero was not drafted into the Army until the end of the war, but nevertheless witnessed indescribable during his service in 1945. Once he and 4,000 men of the 32nd Division finished basic training, they sailed from Fort Lawton in Seattle to the Philippines. By the time their vessel arrived, the war had ended and he and his fellow soldiers expected to return home.
Instead, their boat took them to Nagasaki, by then destroyed by Fat Man, the second and last atomic bomb ever used in warfare. During his time stationed in Japan, he also went to Hiroshima, the first city destroyed by a nuclear weapon.
“I won’t describe it,” he said when asked.
Upon leaving the Army and returning to Santa Barbara in 1946, Mr. Riffero resumed his work in real estate. Remaining active, healthy and working past 100 years old while others younger than him would be slowing down and succumbing to ill health, Mr. Riffero said he recently became the oldest person his doctor has given a pacemaker, at the age of 103.
Though he feels blessed to have lived so long, Mr. Riffero has his own secret to living a long, healthy life: Consuming all things with moderation.
“You got to put a limit to everything,” he said.