90-year-old Middletown resident shares her secrets for a life well lived

Vera Bagnatori enjoys texting on her iPhone, maintaining her Facebook profile and spending time with her girlfriends.

But this Middletown resident is far from a teenager.

"I just like having fun," said Bagnatori, who turned 90 on Sunday. "That's really what life is all about."

The Wilmington native certainly had a fun-filled birthday weekend, starting with a surprise flight aboard a four-seat Piper Warrior – the latest thrill ride she's crossed off her extensive bucket list.

"After I retired, my husband and I flew in a small plane over Tampa Bay, but I had to sit in the back," she said. "A few years ago, I saw an ad in the newspaper about a man who gave rides in his airplane and I thought that's something I want to do, except this time I want to sit in the front."

Bagnatori's children convinced their mother to stop by Summit Airport for a made-up errand on Friday, when Dan Boulay, the owner of Bird's Eye View Aviation Services, just so happened to offer her a closer look at his small turboprop-engine airplane.

Her inspection of the aircraft was interrupted by family members shouting, "Surprise!"

Minutes later, the nonagenarian was off on an hour-long tour over New Castle County, along with her oldest grandchild Michael Shawn O'Neill.

"I still can't believe they did that," Bagnatori said after her birthday weekend, which also included a party attended by more than 100 family and friends. "My feet hurt a little from all the dancing, but I don't think I've come down yet."

Surprisingly, Bagnatori's birthday flight is probably one of her tamer exploits.

The mother of five, grandmother of 13 and great-grandmother of 17 also has tried her hand at parasailing, operating a Wave Runner and taking the Special Olympics Polar Bear Plunge – all while in her 80s.

"I think what's kept her young and vibrant is that she's continually challenging herself," said Vicky Miller, Vera's fourth child and a fellow Middletown resident. "She's not afraid of new things and she keeps very active. We actually had to plan her birthday party around her social calendar."

Vera, whose maiden name is Gregg, grew up in the Highlands area outside Wilmington and graduated from Conrad High School in 1941.

Four years later, she married the love of her life, Giulio "Gil" Bagnatori, whom she met at a USO dance.

Vera worked as an executive assistant at the accounting firm Zenker and Styner before becoming a volunteer at the former Wilmington Hospital, while Gil worked for Container Corporation of America before retiring to open his own packaging equipment repair business, MecPac, in Brandywood.

Gil died in 2001, leaving Vera alone in their North Wilmington home for the first time in 56 years. Three years later, she moved into her current residence in Springmill, a Middletown community for people 55 and older.

"I think if I had stayed in that house any longer, I wouldn't have been alive any longer than three years," she said. "I love it here. There's so much to do and I've made so many new friends, who I get a kick out of. They all tell me they want to be me when they grow up."

Bagnatori now spends her time playing cards and bocce, riding her bike, playing the occasional round of golf, attending dances at the Talleyville Fire Hall, participating in a pair of wine tasting clubs and reading romance novels, like "50 Shades of Grey," on her e-reader.

"My advice to people is to just keep going and smile," she said. "Stay busy, keep yourself happy and don't ever go around with a frown on your face."

To that end, Bagnatori said she's already planning her next grand adventure.

"On the car ride back from the airport, I was thinking to myself, 'You know, I think next time, I'd like to be the one flying that plane," she said.