- February 20, 2020
Joe Jennings doesn’t feel 99. Anything but.
The Sarasota resident has worked hard to stay busy and make the most of his near-100 years of living. He’s served in the military during multiple conflicts, helped sink a German submarine during World War II, been involved in the intelligence community years after and has spent his retirement years working on tennis racquet designs and patents with his partner in sunny Florida.
It’s been a full life, and the result of that has been some big moments and close connections that Jennings treasures. He's feeling particularly reflective of late — he's turning 100 on Sept. 14.
“I've enjoyed a lot of things,” Jennings said. “I never let anyone stop me from what I wanted to do.”
Jennings was born in Oklahoma and grew up with a father who worked as an auto mechanic and a mother who looked after him and his four siblings. He concedes childhood wasn't always easy — he had to deliver newspapers at age 12 to help the family make ends meet.
Jennings said he enlisted immediately at 19 following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. After a brief attempt at the Army Air Corps — he says he didn’t have the eyes for aviation — Jennings joined the Navy in 1942 where he worked as an aviation radio operator doing anti-submarine patrols in the Atlantic.
“Our job was to keep submarines down,” Jennings said. “That was rewarding to me. It was work I was interested in.”
It's been a long life, but one day that stands out in his mind was when he and other service members identified and sank a German submarine off the coast of Brazil in 1943. He'd trained for hours and hours for that moment, and the attack went smoothly when it finally arrived.
"We knew what to do, when to do it and how to do it," Jennings said. "We executed with perfect precision. I never thought about (the impact). We were just doing our jobs."
He used his talents gathered in the military and returned to Oklahoma City after the war to open a radio repair shop.
“I understood electronics,” Jennings said. “I never came across something I couldn’t repair.”
Jennings spent some time doing that while attending night school to get his degree before returning to the military to serve in the Korean War.
That conflict gave way to a full-time career in the military that took Jennings and his family to France and several other countries. He later worked in the civilian intelligence community in D.C. before eventually moving to Sarasota in the 1970s.
“My first impressions of Sarasota were positive,” Jennings said. “I suddenly found out anything I wanted to do, I could do in Sarasota.”
That included working on cars — he’s never lost his love of tinkering — and even he spent time as a boat captain.
In 2011, his hobby of team handball gave way to tennis, a sport he hadn’t touched in years but didn’t cause any pain to his now-aching back, at the Field Club.
It was there he met Denise Barker, the New York-turned-Sarasota resident who would be his future partner. They had a contentious start playing tennis — she beat him in their first match.
The two bonded and went steady, eventually going on a cruise together and spontaneously deciding to get married.
"The pastor looked at us and said: 'I can tell you have the same values. I want to marry you in the chapel,'" Barker said.
Jennings' love of repair and design has never dimmed, and he's spent years working on a tennis racquet design that boosts hitting power without doing damage to the elbow.
"Only when I was fully retired (from the military) did I realize I wanted to keep doing this kind of thing," Jennings said. "I had time and I started working on things."
Jennings reached his 80s and eventually his 90s and found himself unable to play tennis in the way he used to. Besides, he's still keeping active — whenever Barker goes on walks at Marina Jack, Jennings is nearby hitting plastic golf balls to keep himself in shape.
Soon enough, Jennings will celebrate his life. More than 100 friends are throwing him a 100th birthday celebration at the Field Club in mid-September.
It's a hard thing to wrap his head around. He doesn't feel like he's done anything special to get to this point — he's had people ask for his secret, and he just tells them it's likely a matter of healthy activity and genetics.
"I don't know how you're supposed to feel at 100, but I don't feel that."
How he's lived as a person is something Jennings is more confident about. The days have come and gone, and he's found himself in a variety of places and situations, but he says he's always made sure to embrace each day with all the excitement he can find.
"I can't think of a day in my life that I didn't look forward to," Jennings said. "I think that's important. I look back and think 'Would I live that life again?'" and I think 'Absolutely.'"