Lenny ‘Pie Man’ Roberge

Lenny Roberge of South Burlington, Vermont’s oldest living veteran, in 2020 around his 106th birthday.

Leonard “Lenny” Roberge will be remembered as a life-long Vermonter who baked pies for his family, neighbors, dentist and car mechanic, who wrote jokes on slips of paper to keep his mind sharp and friends laughing, who sang his heart out, lived through two global pandemics and served in World War II.

He claimed the title of oldest living veteran in the state for two years until his death on Christmas Day at age 107 — and a half.

Days before his death from natural causes, Roberge and one of his daughters, Lucille Nadeau, erected two Christmas trees in his apartment at Harbor Village in South Burlington, just how he liked it. He sang carols with his neighbors — “Dad’s hearing was going, but he was belting it out,” Nadeau said — and instead of mailing out holiday cards, Roberge called every one of his friends and family members. That was one of his ways of being a good friend, Nadeau said.

While the public knew him as the oldest living veteran in Vermont, anyone who was close to Roberge or was lucky enough to receive a slice of his homemade pie will remember his friendship. Those who knew him might remember one of his refrains: “You have to be a friend to have a friend.”

Half of that charm came from his career as an appliance salesman, oozing a charm that drew people in and sometimes kept him working late as a young father of three.

“He was networking before the term was coined,” Nadeau recalled laughing. That’s what she and her siblings remember growing up: they saw a hard-working, charismatic dad who, if he wasn’t on a sales call, was working on some inch of their home, not often taking a moment for himself.

The other half of the charm came from his love of people: Roberge was a member of the Knights of Columbus, American Legion, and other social organizations throughout his life. He raised three kids — Nadeau, Joan Sullivan and Ed Roberge — in Brattleboro with his wife of 64 and a half years, Agnes Connor Roberge. He volunteered at the International School for the Deaf years ago, picking up students and taking them out for ice cream. As a talented singer, Roberge often lent his voice to weddings, funerals and barbershop quartets.

“How he loved to sing! I often wrote out the words for our ‘Golden Oldies,’ and he was at his prime, singing his heart out to others,” Carolyn Gray, one of Roberge’s friends at Harbor Village, recalled. She added that often serenades happened over the phone, although the love songs were always for Agnes.

Gray’s phone rings a lot less since his death. The buddies bonded over the Red Sox, the Patriots and singing. A “man of habits,” as she described him, Roberge ate the same thing for breakfast almost every day: a soft-boiled egg, a banana, toast and OJ. For dinner, he was prepared with a sharp knife, ketchup, pickles, and sugar to add to his soup, she said.

“They don’t often make them like that, our Lenny,” she said.

Soon, Roberge became known around the Village for his baked goods. Agnes used to be the pie maker in the family, so after she died in 2007 Roberge picked up the tradition in her honor.

A pie fairy in a Red Sox cap and chunky glasses, Roberge used to cut slices of pie and leave them in little bags hanging from the doors of his Village neighbors and everywhere else he went when he was still driving, Nadeau said.

“The mechanic got pie. When he got dentures, the doctor got pie — everywhere he went,” she said. And every thank you note Roberge kept safely in a xthree-ring binder.

When he turned 106 years old, Roberge told The Other Paper that baking pies was a satisfying pastime that kept his brain and body active. Telling jokes was another way he kept his brain sharp.

“The old adage is, ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it,’ so I continue to do that,” he said. His advice for living into three digits is similarly simple: “People come up to me and say what’s the secret for growing old. I tell them to keep breathing.”

When Roberge would crack up at his own punchlines, often involving poultry of some kind crossing a road, Nadeau couldn’t help but laugh.

“That really cracked me up,” she said. “It just shows that he had such a lot of joy.”

As she was cleaning out Roberge’s apartment, Nadeau found another three-ring binder, not full of more thank you notes, but full of scribbled down jokes.

With his zingers and humble, keep-going attitude that seemed to win him friends all over (piping hot baked goods might’ve helped), many wouldn’t know that tragedy struck Roberge at an early age.

Born in 1914 in Winooski, Roberge was 6 years old when his father died, triggering the breakdown and separation of their family that would last more than two years. Roberge went to stay in a convent in Winooski, while his brother was sent to Saint Joseph’s in Burlington and his sister to extended family. It wasn’t until his mother remarried and returned that Roberge’s family reunited.

“Just imagining how frightening that was for that little boy and how he didn’t really have his own dad, but he grew up to be still a wonderful husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather and friend. He really, really, really turned his life around. It’s just amazing to me,” Lucille said.

In 1942, a few years into World War II, Roberge enlisted in the Navy, making his way into the captain’s office as yeoman third class in Portland, Maine thanks to his typing skills. This is according to his autobiography, “A Life Well Lived,” which Roberge wrote at age 97.

“As soon as I saved up $20, I mailed it home to my bride,” he wrote. As a married sailor, Roberge rose to the top of those eligible for discharge toward the war’s end and he returned home to Rutland with his wife where they started their family.

Growing up, Nadeau knew her dad was special. “Everybody’s dad is really special, and everybody’s mom is special. But this guy truly was such an incredible father, for what he modeled to us. He’ll always be with us,” she said.

Especially in the jokes and his little sayings like, “Here we go” — something she and her family catch themselves saying now and then.

Nadeau is hanging onto another of his sayings as she and Roberge’s large, loving family grapple with the hole his death has left — “It’s far better to laugh than to cry.”

So, perhaps in honor of Lenny Roberge: bake an apple pie, tell a cheesy joke, hug a friend and keep breathing. “Here we go.”

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