COPAKE — Eugene Francis Meenagh never planned on being 100.
“I have no secret formula, there’s no way of saying what happened,” Mr. Meenagh told The Columbia Paper this week from the comfort of his living room easy chair. “When I was younger I wasn’t afraid of taking a drink or staying out all night.”
Born October 4, 1922, Mr. Meenagh thought he was going to celebrate his 100th birthday by having lunch at The Pond restaurant with two of his daughters. But when he got there he found out he was the guest of honor at a big party.
“They threw me a surprise party and actually surprised me,” he said. Sixty-five people showed up, mostly relatives (he has outlived most of his friends) from as far away as Australia, Tennessee, Virginia and New Hampshire. He couldn’t believe they had come from so far away.
Raised primarily in The Bronx, he went to parochial school—Mount Saint Michael Academy in the north Bronx–and graduated from high school in 1940. From there he went on to Fordham University to major in chemistry. He wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do with his degree, but he thought he had a few years to figure it out.
But shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, the U.S. entered World War II and Mr. Meenagh left school to join the U.S. Army Air Force. He was sworn in April 1942.
Private Meenagh was sent to a basic training field in Smyrna, Tennessee, where for nine months, he and 21 other “kids” learned everything they needed to know about “big bombers—B-24s,” also called four-engine planes, like taking-off, landing, performing aerial maneuvers and servicing them. Some “got their wings” while others staffed the ground crew.
He said it was a good spot for training because there were no hills. He called the aircraft “big clumsy planes, not as good as the ones we have today” and noted there were “frequent accidents.” He explained that the planes had “fuel tanks all over the place” and the idea was to keep the plane balanced. “You couldn’t have one wing filled with fuel and the other one empty,” that’s why they carried extra fuel inside the plane “in case of emergency.”
After basic training, Mr. Meenagh said he was sent back to college at North Carolina State for a while. He said “colleges were dying because no kids were going, so they decided to put some GIs back in.”
In early 1944, he got orders “to pack his gear, we were going overseas” so he boarded a “huge convoy” headed toward Europe, though they were never told exactly where they were headed.
During his deployment, Mr. Meenagh was stationed in numerous locations, throughout the China-Burma-India Theater of operations, working as an aircraft engine mechanic, eventually assigned to the 54th service command.
He went to India and then North Africa, where he trained for the infantry in anticipation of being sent to Italy, where some troops were having a difficult time and needed support.
They taught him to crawl on his belly and throw grenades. He remembers thinking he had “found out how I was going to die.” When he was told to ship out, he fully expected to land in Italy, but instead kept going, through the Suez Canal to Aden on the southern tip of Arabia and eventually to Calcutta, India.
He later flew over “The Hump” of the Himalayan Mountains and was stationed at a large supply area in Kunming, China. He was eventually discharged in January 1946.
But he and his family had not escaped the war unscathed. Mr. Meenagh’s brother, First Lieutenant William F. Meenagh, a B-17E flight navigator, went missing in action following a bombing mission in the Pacific Theater September 17, 1942. He is memorialized at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.
During the next chapter of his life, Mr. Meenagh got married in June 1947; finished up his Bachelor of Science degree at Fordham in June 1949, and took the application test in hopes of joining the New York City Police Department (NYPD).
He was sworn in as a patrolman in July 1947.
Over the next 37 years, Patrolman Meenagh worked his way up through the ranks to lieutenant detective. He supervised a squad of detectives ranging in number from 12 to 50. He said the lower number reflects “the lean years.”
Asked if he investigated any homicides, he said “that was our specialty.” In fact some members of the squad thought up the motto: “When your day ends, ours begins.”
Though he was reluctant to talk about specific cases, he said given legal restrictions and technological limitations, he was quite amazed at how successful they were at solving cases. He said a critical characteristic of a good detective was someone with “street smarts.”
In the summer of 1961, Mr. Meenagh and his family started spending summers in Copake. He and his wife, the late Mary Catherine King, had seven children in total and were married for 52 years.
In 1966, the family moved to Copake fulltime, while Mr. Meenagh kept a room in the city, where he lived during the week while continuing to work for the NYPD. He came up on weekends, holidays and vacations. Early on, while he enjoyed spending time with his family, he also felt the city pulling him back—he wondered what he had missed on the job while he was gone. Now he says he would never go back and never encouraged any of his children to become a cop, although one of them did anyway.
Mr. Meenagh retired from the force in October 1985.
He was elected to two four-year terms as Copake town justice, serving in the 1990s.
Thinking back on his time in the military, Mr. Meenagh said when he was in China, he honestly did not expect to come home. “We thought there was a long war ahead. We thought the U.S. was getting ready to invade Japan, which would have been a mess. But the war stopped suddenly.” The men he served with were like his family, brothers. One or more were drafted, but there was never any complaint by anyone about being drafted. “It was a group of good guys.” They came from places across the country. Though he had kept in touch with one or two, “they’re all gone now, I’m the only one left.”
Asked what invention has come along in his lifetime that has made a significant difference, he says the computer. He uses a computer and it keeps his mind active. He also reads a lot. He is particularly impressed with Alexa, who can tell him anything he wants to know at any time and as a bonus plays Frank Sinatra tunes on command.
While Mr. Meenagh never thought about living to be 100, as the prospect drew nearer, he started thinking, “I hope I make it. I hope nothing takes me down at the last minute.”
Now that he has hit the mark, he said everyone wants to talk to him, “They say, ‘Hey, tell me something.’”
Mr. Meenagh will be the recipient of a proclamation honoring his long life and military service issued by the Copake Town Board at its November 10 meeting. Veterans’ Day November 11 will be declared Eugene F. Meenagh Day in the Town of Copake.
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