Peter Kaye has taken many trips in his life – by his family’s estimate, he’s visited more than 150 countries during his century on Earth. But none left him more surprised than the 100-or-so-step journey he took Thursday from his doorstep to a newly installed bench at The Highlands retirement community in Topsham.

“I wish all of you should go through the same experience,” he said, merrily hoisting a small plastic cup of cold prosecco to the klatch of family, friends and neighbors gathered for his 100th birthday in the scorching, late-morning sun.

Nearby stood 89-year-old Nancy, his wife of 30 years, dressed to the nines in a turquoise pantsuit and surrendering nary a wince from the bifold door that came loose and fell on her at a hotel in New Hampshire last weekend. The mishap left her with three broken ribs, 12 stitches in her arm and an assortment of other cuts and bruises.

A strong couple? Let’s just say that if toughness is the secret to longevity, these two will outlive us all.

It began with a classified ad.

A plaque on the bench in honor of Peter Kaye, who turned 100 Thursday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Back in 1988, Nancy was a divorced mother of two living in Portland, where she’d grown up, moved away in the mid-1950s, and after an absence of 33 years, moved back.

An expert skier who’d spent her career as a management trainer for Procter & Gamble and a few other large corporations, she was mourning the recent death of her father. Alone in her mid-50s, she found herself yearning for someone who might bring a little fun and excitement to her life.

Peter, who fled Czechoslovakia along with his Jewish family in 1940 to escape Hitler and the Nazis, had settled in Toronto, founded a successful plastics manufacturing company and, also divorced, now split his time between Canada and a place on Westport Island just east of Bath.

At 67, he too craved a companion. So he took out a personal ad in the Maine Times – the local harbor for lonely hearts long before online sites like Match.com and eHarmony turned dating into rocket science.

Nancy was the first to answer the ad. To shorten the driving time for both, they agreed to meet at the Jameson Tavern in Freeport that Aug. 14 – 33 years ago Saturday.

Nancy arrived promptly at 6 p.m. Peter, stuck in southbound Sunday afternoon traffic, didn’t.

Peter Kaye, who turned 100 on Thursday, goes for his daily walk Thursday at The Highlands, a retirement community in Topsham, with family members, including Heather Kay, right, of Washington D.C. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“So, at 6:10 or 6:15, I’m just about to say ‘Sayonara, Peter,’ and he arrives,” Nancy recalled. “We had a very nice dinner, lots of nice conversation and lots of laughs and so forth and … then I didn’t hear from him.”

Maybe he’d gone back to Canada, she thought. Or maybe he’d moved on with his search.

A week later, on Sunday morning, Nancy’s phone rang. It was Peter, who said he had a house guest in Westport and they were having lobster that evening and might she be so kind as to join them?

Nancy, an old-school kind of woman, thought to herself, “You’re calling Sunday morning for Sunday night? I don’t think so.”

Then she thought again: “Nancy, what are you going to be doing tonight? Nothing.”

And so, she said yes.

The moment where Peter Kaye realized there was a surprise party for him at The Highlands, a retirement community in Topsham where he lives, Thursday. From left are Tammy Lally of Washington D.C.; Debbie Solomon of San Diego, California; Peter and Peter’s daughter Heather Kaye of Washington D.C. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“And the rest is history,” Nancy said.

Three years later, tired of Peter shuttling back and forth over the Maine-Canadian border to stay on the right side of immigration rules, they married. Or, as Nancy likes to put it, she became “his trophy wife.”

Not to mention his partner in globetrotting.

Over their three decades together, they’ve visited 87 countries, continuing a wanderlust that led Peter in search of adventure his entire adult life. They went to Vietnam long before it normalized relations with the United States. They traveled to Patagonia, Madagascar “before it became a thing,” the jungles of Borneo …

S0, it’s the travel that has kept them young?

“The desire to travel.” Peter replied, as lucid as the day is long.

A banner with photographs on display during the surprise birthday party for Peter Kaye who turned 100 Thursday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

For most of their marriage, Peter and Nancy lived in West Bath, where Peter built his “bachelor pad” all those years ago. They’d long planned to leave there “feet first,” as Nancy put it, but the remote location prompted them to reconsider and move to The Highlands a few years ago.

Good choice.

Well familiar with Peter from his daily constitutionals around the sylvan neighborhood, and with Nancy from her place on the community’s board of directors, the friends and neighbors numbered around a dozen or so when Peter and his two daughters – Heather from Washington, D.C., and Valerie from Vancouver – emerged from the front door at 11 a.m. sharp on Thursday.

By the time they made it up the short hill and Peter settled into a brand-new wooden bench, the crowd had swelled to near 50. Affixed to the bench, which Nancy had installed that very morning to replace his old rest stop, was a plaque proclaiming it “Petey’s Perch.”

Many arrived with little plastic party horns. Neighbors Bill Ewing and Lynn Lockwood brought a pressurized air horn – its one short blast must have echoed all the way to Brunswick.

Bill deadpanned, as the prosecco was passed around for a toast, that he was drawn “by the lure of the free booze. Some people move here to relax. I moved here to stir things up.”

Peter Kaye talks with visitors during his 100th birthday party at the Highlands retirement community Thursday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Dan O’Leary, former director of the Portland Museum of Art, got to know Nancy when she served on the museum’s board of trustees. He came with his wife, Kathy Bouchard, to honor the man with whom they still have dinner at least monthly.

“It’s been on my calendar since the beginning of the year – actually, the year before,” O’Leary said. “And one of my goals was if I could enjoy this birthday party with him, 2021 would be a success. This was my measure. And he made it possible – and Nancy made it possible.”

Which, again, amounted to a herculean effort on Nancy’s part. Last week’s accident at the Mountain Club on Loon – a resort in Lincoln, New Hampshire, where she’s also on the board – would have sidelined most women in their late 80s. Instead, here she was soldiering on in support of her centenarian husband, attending to the final details of a celebration she’d planned for months.

Longtime friend Elizabeth McLellan drove Nancy home from New Hampshire last week. The founder of Portland-based Partners for World Health, she will forever remember a three-week trip she took to Ethiopia in 2006 on which she was the youngest member of the nine-person group. Peter, then 85, was by far the oldest.

“He was out there, climbing the waterfalls and doing all this stuff – leading the charge,” McLellan recalled. “And explaining everything even better than the tour guide because he had done all this research.”

Friends and family gather around Nancy and Peter Kaye as they sit on the bench during the surprise birthday party for Peter Kaye Thursday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

McLellan can only marvel at all the life calamities that have bypassed her oldest friend – no cancer, no dementia, no heart or pulmonary disease, none of the things that normally might signal the end of a life well lived.

“He dodged all of it,” she said. “He just kept on walking down the road and he didn’t look back. And that’s what I think kept him young.”

So what now? As he embarks on year 101, what’s next on the agenda for a man who’s scuba-dived the seven seas, hiked the Himalayas, even returned at age 80 to his hometown in the Czech Republic to find one of his old classmates working at their still-functioning grammar school? (“They recognized each other instantly,” daughter Heather recalled.)

Basking in the laughter, the good wishes, the pure joy of being alive for another Maine summer day, the man of the hour – no, make that the century – looked around in awe. The blind date he now calls “the elixir of my life” was still at his side. So were their three daughters, all in their 60s and 70s, and his many friends old and new. Heck, he even bought a new pair of hearing aids last week and they’re working like a charm.

What more could he want?

“I’m not doing any planning at this stage,” Peter said, his smile wide, his eyes as bright as the blue August sky. “At this point, you just let it happen and enjoy what you’ve got.”


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