The sweet sound of survival itself wafts through a Minnesota assisted-living home as 101-year-old Samuel Nilva bursts into song each day.
Nilva is a son of immigrants, born in 1919 at the height of the last pandemic. He served in World War II, losing an older brother. He bounced back from neurosurgery last year. And he has now beaten COVID-19, as he happily announces each new day to all who are within earshot.
“When he sings, the whole place can hear it,” his daughter, Barbara Nevin, told The Daily Beast. “He’s got a pretty good voice.”
Nilva was born on April 29, 1919, as the deadly third wave of the “Spanish Flu” struck. He continued on from his earliest days as living proof that people can survive such a calamity.
“We’ve been through this before,” he told his daughter when COVID-19 reached America.
And during World War II, he had watched the country swiftly assemble all its resources against a common foe.
“He was amazed during World War II [that] we could just mobilize,” she reported. “He lived through that. He saw it.”
He has no doubt we will prevail again.
“He believes this country will do it,” the daughter said.
“And soon, he thinks.”
He has counseled his daughter as he no doubt would all of us.
“He said, ‘Don’t be afraid,’” Nevin reported.
She added, “He told me that my whole life—not to be afraid of anything.”
Nilva is painfully aware that even the greatest victories are accompanied by terrible losses. He keeps a photo hanging in his room of his older brother Jake, whose plane was shot down while he was serving in the Pacific with the Navy’s famed Black Cat squadron. The brother was captured by the Japanese and beheaded on Thanksgiving Day of 1944.
Samuel Nilva started in the Army Air Corps, but the military cut back on the number of pilots in training and he was in the Criminal Investigation Division at the war’s end. His brother’s remains were returned to St. Paul three years later, and reburied in the Sons of Jacob Cemetery there.
Each Memorial Day, Samuel Nilva placed a flag on his brother’s grave and on those of other veterans. He carried his brother in his heart as he started a family and built a business installing coin-operated kiddie rides in the Twin Cities.
“We got to do it for free,” his daughter recalled.
He stayed with it through the rise of Pac-Man, but retired upon the advent of computer games. He continued his Memorial Day visits to the cemeteries, enlisting his children to help place the flags.
In the meantime, he had demonstrated that you do not have to be politically conservative to be fiercely patriotic. He was an early contributor to the Southern Poverty Law Center. He and his equally Caucasian wife made a point of using the water fountains marked “Colored Only” while on a trip to Florida.
His wife died in 1991, but he was lucky enough to meet another remarkable woman. He was so unlucky as to lose her also. Good fortune returned after his grandson Eddie Nevin enlisted in the Marines in 2006 and returned safe from two deployments to Iraq.
Nilva was living alone in an apartment last year, still so energetic and in love with flying that he would take occasional glider flights with a family friend. He then was suddenly unable to speak.
Doctors determined he had suffered double subdural hematomas, likely the result of a fall at home. He underwent surgery and was soon back to full strength, but the time had come for him to move into the Roitenberg Family Assisted Living Residence in St. Louis Park. He missed placing flags in the cemeteries on Memorial Day for the first time in more than half a century. But he hung a photo of his brother on the wall of his room.
“He never forgot the loss of his brother,” Barbara Nevin reported. “He would always say, ‘I just can’t forget about what they did to my brother.’”
His friends at his new residence included a woman named Ramona, who became a regular breakfast buddy. He would sing to her a hit of the same name that was No. 1 in record sales for seven weeks in 1928.
“Ramona, when day is done you’ll hear my call...
“Ramona, we’ll meet beside the waterfall…”
With the arrival of COVID-19 in America, the residents were instructed to remain in their rooms. Nilva sang for the nurses from quarantine through the open door.
That was then joined by an alarming sound that Nevin could hear over the phone.
“We could hear him coughing,” Nevin said. “The nurses said, ‘We better get him tested.’”
The test was positive for COVID-19. Nilva was admitted to the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center on April 23. He quickly recovered and was ready to be discharged on the morning of April 28, the day before his 101st birthday. The medical staff decided to celebrate a day early.
“Happy Birthday!” exclaimed one of the nurses who entered his room clad in personal protective gear that morning.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” Nilva replied.
“Hi, guess what?” the nurse asked as she stepped up to his bedside. “We have a little celebration for you, birthday boy.”
The nurses held up a multi-colored “Happy Birthday” banner in gloved hands.
“You’re wonderful!” Nilva said.
“You’re wonderful!” a nurse said.
The nurse made sure he could see a monitor that connected him via video to Nevin and others in his family. They all joined in singing “Happy Birthday,” the nurses from behind face shields. The nurses applauded, this sound made poignant by disposable latex.
More applause came from the medical staff as Nilva was wheeled down the hallway on a gurney. Here was a moment of brightness in a fight that had left thousands of Americans dead, more than 300 in Minnesota and the number sure to grow to where it will be hard for almost anybody not to be afraid. A nurse placed a big handmade birthday card on his chest signed by various staffers.
“Happy Birthday, young man!”
“Way to make it happen! 101!”
He was soon back at the assisted-living residence. His daughter reported that the one lingering effect of the disease was an inability to taste.
“His vitals are good,” Nevin said. “It’s just trying to get him to eat is the only thing.”
He remained as much a favorite of the nurses there as he had obviously been at the hospital.
“His nurses are always ‘darling’ and ‘sweetheart,’” Nevin said. “He’ll tell some of his nurses, ‘You should be in the movies.’ He’s a shameless flirt.”
He once again sang to them as they passed in the hallway, his surprisingly strong voice filling the residence.
Whatever the particular song, whatever the lyrics, his survival said we have made it through this before.