Column: With friends in tow at Griffith Park, Pete Teti walks into his second century
If the key to a long life — along with good genes and lots of luck — is to keep moving, Pete Teti is on the right trail.
He started Thanksgiving Day as he has begun most every other day for more than 20 years — with a hike in Griffith Park. Teti, three days away from his 100th birthday, met up with his usual cohort of friends near the Griffith Observatory and began the climb toward Mt. Hollywood, a roughly two-mile round trip.
He stopped briefly to take a seat on a park bench that has his name engraved on it — he’s a bit of a legend in these parts — and played his harmonica for a few minutes. Then he was back up and moving.
Los Angeles stretched out beneath us, skyscraper to sea, in the silver, cloud-filtered light of a newborn day. In a city of strivers ricocheting around in congested isolation, the park is an island of repose, a place where lives intersect and time slows. Teti exchanged smiles, waves and greetings of “good morning” and “happy Thanksgiving” with fellow travelers he’s come to know.
“They leave all their problems down there in the city,” Teti said, moving with the ease of a man half his age.
“He’s got a lot of swagger,” said his friend and walking mate Annette Sikand, who took note of Teti’s erect posture and steady gait.
Teti, wearing a charcoal colored newsboy cap, paused at a turnout in the trail and blew into his harmonica again, the Hollywood sign clinging to the mountain at his back. Then the World War II vet, who served in Europe, Africa and the Pacific with the U.S. Army, decided to keep advancing up a steeper portion of the incline.
“I thought we were … ready to go down again, but no,” said Teti’s friend Jay Miller, who is 20 years younger than Teti. “No, you have to keep going up.”
Tom McGovern met Teti several years ago, when McGovern accompanied the late Councilman Tom LaBonge on daily hikes, and the men bonded under the hypnotic spell of the park. The senior member of the walking club may have slowed a bit over time, McGovern said, but not much.
“His pace, for his age, is remarkable. No doubt about it,” said McGovern. “For any age, his pace is good.”
Along the dusty trail we bumped into Mozhi Jabberi, who said she was walking once or twice a week until she met Teti recently. Inspired by him, she decided to hike more frequently.
“I want people to know he started his serious hiking at the age of 79,” said Jabberi, 52.
Nancy Kristol and her husband, Mark, were heading up the trail with Rocco, one of the many dogs who seem to enjoy being serenaded by the harmonica-playing hiker. The Kristols met Teti during the pandemic, Nancy said, and she enjoys her encounters with a man so “in tune with his environment and the love of his mountain.”
“It’s very special to have met him up here,” she said, “when there’s all this chaos down there and all this insanity that we’ve all experienced. To meet him up here was just a gift, and we appreciate him every day.”
He follows no secret diet, Teti told me. He eats what he feels like eating — including a pastry at Figaro Bistro, if the mood strikes him, or a burger from In-N-Out. But all things in moderation, he said. He began hiking when he had trouble tying his shoes one day and decided to slim down, and the park is conveniently located not far from his home in Silver Lake.
But there are a couple of things about Teti’s lifestyle that belong in any textbook on aging well. He does not live in isolation, and his physical activity is matched — actually, it’s surpassed — by his intellectual curiosity.
Teti worked for half a century as a teacher in Los Angeles, mostly in the arts, but late in life, he has reinvented himself in pursuit of new interests. Many people, as they age, resist change. Teti embraces it.
“He’s made two violins, he does engraving, he’s a painter, he’s currently creating animation, he’s constantly learning about physics, geometry, fractiles,” said Jay Miller.
The day before our hike, I visited Teti at his home, where he built a stained-glass gazebo in the front yard and laid tiles in the back patio. His studio is stuffed with books, computers and his most recent abstract paintings. He works in one corner of the house while his equally artistic wife, Rose Marie, 89, works in a room that serves as an ever-growing museum of her vibrantly colored paintings and whimsical home-made chandeliers.
Teti — who took up the harmonica just a few years ago — told me his curiosity dates back to his childhood in southern Italy.
“I was nosey, and from school, I would stop at the cabinetmaker’s and stand by the door and sometimes he invited me in and put a tool in my hand,” Teti said. “And then I’d go to the blacksmith, and he invited me in to make a horseshoe, and I was excited.”
His family moved to Pennsylvania in the 1930s, and Teti settled in Los Angeles after serving in World War II and earning a master’s in art at USC. When school ended, his lifelong course in continuing education began. Teti showed me the bank of screens and keyboards in his workshop, where he’s teaching himself to convert sounds, shapes and colors into computer-driven art and animation.
A lot of it was beyond my comprehension, but Teti bubbled with childlike enthusiasm. Sometimes, he said, it’s impossible for him to get a good night’s sleep. His imagination keeps waking him up.
“It’s pretty incredible that a 100-year-old guy knows how to use this software,” said Les Camacho, a sound engineer who is half Teti’s age and helped him with the computer setup.
Not long ago, Teti called Camacho midday and said hey, let’s go get a burger.
“On the way back from In-N-Out we were listening to KLOS and all of a sudden AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ comes on, so I wanted to change it, and he said, ‘No, no, leave it, I like that,’” said Camacho, 47. “He was head-banging in my car.”
There’s such unbridled optimism and positivity about him, Teti’s friends say, he’s something of a pied piper in the park, where he’s been known to dance a jig while playing his harmonica.
“In a city so big and sometimes so lonely and troubled, he’s a constant light to those who get to be around him,” said Kori Bernards, another hiker.
A man of 100 might be inclined toward disillusionment at the state of the world, given domestic fracturing, the devastation in Ukraine, the war in the Middle East and the acceleration of climate change. But when I asked him about this, Teti told me he remembers the dirt floors of his childhood home, the Great Depression, the millions of lives lost in World War II and so much more.
“It’s a cycle,” he said. “It seems like I’ve lived from the Renaissance to modern times, and I look back and say what’s happening now is nothing new. It’s happened throughout history. So I tell my friends this is a low cycle right now. … But I trust in younger people who come into the world without the prejudice of adults. I trust young people to change things.”
So how did Teti intend, on Sunday, to celebrate 100?
You guessed it. The plan was to meet pals near the bench with the L.A. Parks Foundation dedication that reads: “Pete Teti. Harmonica man, avid Griffith Park hiker, artist, teacher and WWII veteran.”
And then Teti would lead the walk up the trail and into the next century.
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