WWII veteran helps grow young minds

Fred Curcio, a 97-year-old veteran of World War II, tears off a piece of freshly grown basil, smiling as he inhales the earthy spice.

Two garden beds away, 4-year-old Logan Croll takes a deep breath, too, near the sunflower growing directly in front of his nose. "It smells like the sun," he says.

Though almost a century divides them in age, they have found common ground in a garden at the Parkland YMCA.

Curcio, who grew up on a farm in New Jersey, has been tending to the garden since October, helping harvest eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and sunflowers. Convinced by a family member to volunteer, he visits at least once a week, helping young children at the YMCA grow and pick their own fruits and veggies.

"He's very much like a quiet grandfather," said program director Adele Trizzino. "He has such a knowledge and love for the garden."

She says Curcio transformed the garden, advising which plants were being overwatered and which needed more space. He even planted his favorite produce: eggplant.

"Once he got here, everything started growing," said Trizzino.

Known as the "Eggplant King" to his friends and competitors, Curcio moved to Pompano Beach after the war and started his own produce company, Twin State Farms, now run by his grandson.

He mainly sold eggplant in the Northeast to satisfy large populations of Greeks and Italians.

"In the wintertime, this was the only place that had any produce," said Curcio, who now lives in Parkland.

Curcio even gardened in the Philippines during the war when he served as a topographical engineer, making maps for the artillery.

At the YMCA, kids excitedly buzzed around Curcio as they plucked onions and planted sunflowers.

"When the sun shines on it, it should be tallest," said Logan Croll, as he patted down the soil around his seedling.

His trick to gardening? "A little bit water, some sun and then you need to take care of it."

Curcio watched and gave his own advice.

"You have to learn by doing it," he said. "I picked peppers and eggplant on the way to school every day."

The YMCA says Curcio has even inspired some parents.

"To see how much it's bloomed, it's reassuring, I might be able to do it, too," said Megan Mila, of Parkland.

Though Curcio no longer has his own garden at home, he now has the YMCA to satisfy his cravings.

"I don't think anyone loves tomatoes more than me, I eat two or three every day," he said.

And that just might be the trick to his longevity.

kyi@tribune.com, 954-747-3033 or Twitter @karen_yi

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