Turning 101 years old is quite a feat. So is surviving the highly contagious COVID-19 coronavirus at an advanced age.
This week, Twin Cities World War II veteran Samuel Nilva did both.
Staff members at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center gathered at his bedside Tuesday to sing “Happy Birthday” as family members joined the chorus through a video chat. Then Nilva got the best present he could get: The hospital gave him his discharge papers, allowing him to go home after a week of care.
“Today was a great day. We were able to celebrate a veteran turning 101 and going home after surviving COVID,” Breena Eam, a registered nurse at the hospital, said in a short video posted on the Minneapolis VA Health Care System’s Facebook page. “It’s days like today that keep our spirits up because it’s so nice to hear that there are people out there who are getting better and able to recover at home.”
Nilva has a long history of survival. He started his life in the midst of a pandemic, born at the height of the Spanish Flu in 1919 in St. Paul as the youngest of five children. Last year at 100 he had brain surgery to relieve swelling. The prospect of contracting COVID hardly scared him, said his daughter Barbara Nevin.
“He has been unafraid of things all his life,” she said in an interview Friday. “He always told me, ‘We have had this before and beat it.’ ”
Nilva originally enlisted in the Navy after graduating from the former Mechanic Arts High School in St. Paul but was discharged when he got albuminuria. He earned a degree in criminology from the University of Minnesota and joined the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division during World War II.
His job was to catch criminals and expose illegal things in the military, his daughter said. He received a commendation from his commanding officer for his devotion to work and duty, she said.
From the 1950s to the early 1980s, Nilva ran the National Amusement Co., placing coin-operated merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels outside grocery stores and drugstores and bringing the Pac-Man video games to theaters. Many kids from his St. Louis Park neighborhood worked for him.
“They adored him and he was a mentor to them,” Nevin said.
Nilva was a Shriner and a Mason, a member of the American Legion, and in 1971 was state commander of the Jewish War Veterans. Up until three years ago, he placed flags on veterans’ graves at local Jewish cemeteries every Memorial Day.
“That was very important to him,” Nevin said, noting that Nilva had lost a brother in combat.
Nilva’s caregivers on Ward 3E signed a birthday card, gave it to him, then cheered and clapped as he was wheeled down the hall, part of his joyful send-off after a week in their care.
Family members made sure he got a fitting birthday dinner of almond-crusted walleye and potatoes.
Spunky and fearless, Nilva returned to his place at Roitenberg Family Assisted Living Residence in St. Louis Park, where he sings to the staff every day. Nevin said she has yet to see her father in person as nobody is allowed in, but she said he had a message for everybody.
“We’ve been through this kind of thing before,” he said. “People should be unafraid.”
Added Nevin, “We hope to have a 102nd birthday when this is over.”