At 99 years old, Louis Serotta has a lifetime of memories and colorful stories. As a boy, he sold peanuts at Yankee Stadium and watched Babe Ruth hit a home run. He fell head over heels in love and married Nell, his wife of 57 years, and raised three daughters with her. He has been the proprietor of Serotta’s clothing store, now in Raleigh’s Five Points neighborhood, since 1952.
He has a new memory now, and a new story to tell. Serotta walked into the Hayes Barton Café in Raleigh Friday and was greeted by a group of friends, family, colleagues and military veterans gathered there to salute his service in World War II and to remember those touched by the events at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Serotta was just 22 years old in Queens, N.Y., when a plan with a buddy to get “free physicals” at the local recruiting office turned into a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps and service in the Pacific on the destroyer the USS Gregory.
His job on the ship? “Staying alive,” Serotta quipped on Friday.
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The gathering was planned by friend David Clappier and hosted by Frank Ballard, owner of Hayes Barton Café and Dessertery. U.S. Marine Corps active duty Staff Sgt. Thomas Wilkie welcomed Serotta while the “Marines’ Hymn” played in the background and Marine veterans Tom Young, Sam Worley and Jay Watters — all of Raleigh — looked on.
Wilkie gave Serotta a framed Marine Corps colors flag. Young fixed a pin of the U.S. flag next to the Marine Corps flag to Serotta’s lapel, and Worley presented him with a black “Marine Corps Veteran” cap. Catherine Stiers, studying for her Masters in history at N.C. State, gave Serotta a framed photograph of himself in uniform.
The Five Points cafe, adorned with WWII-era memorabilia and its walls covered in portraits of WWII veterans and 1940s movie stars, was the perfect setting for Friday’s luncheon. Ballard spoke about how the restaurant is a tribute to his parents and his wife’s parents, particularly his father, Bill Ballard, who joined the Navy just months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The framed photograph of a young Serotta in his Marine uniform will hang on the Hayes Barton Café walls, alongside other local WII veterans, including the father-in-law of Young, who presented Serotta with the Marine Corps lapel pin.
Serotta lives in Cary now with his two daughters, Janet and Barbara Serotta. A third daughter, Diane Hill, lives in Cincinnati. Nell died in 1998. He never remarried, never even went on a date, Barbara Serotta said.
True to character, Serotta’s first words to those gathered on Friday were a quip: “If I had known you were going to make this much a fuss, I wouldn’t have come!”
Serotta regaled his guests with stories (many about “the good old days, when everybody dressed up”) and jokes, in between bites of his lunch. But beneath the jokes and deflections, Serotta admitted to being touched by the gathering.
“I feel very humbled,” he said. “Extremely so. There are thousands of Marines that deserve this much more than I do.”
Spoken like a true Marine.