For as long as I can remember, my father always loved to make others smile. Armed with jokes, song lyrics with dance moves, imitations of characters, or funny greetings, he was fond of bringing a hearty laugh to friends and strangers alike. I like to think he’s still doing that. And, so, it is with a heavy heart *and* a big smile in his honor, that I announce his death:
Virgilio Vergel died on Monday, August 8, 2016, in Fair Lawn, N.J. He was 73.
Born in Ocaña, Colombia, Virgilio, or “Gillo (pronounced: Hee-yo)” as he was called, was the sixth of nine children in the Vergel family. They would move to Colombia’s port city of Barranquilla when he was three. He considered “la arenosa (the sandy city),” as it is known, his home.
As a boy, Virgilio was an energetic child with a wide smile today can be seen in his grandson, RJ, who bears a striking resemblance. He loved to play soccer with his brothers. As a teen he was known for cracking jokes, playing soccer, and his love of dancing to typical Colombian music. As a young adult, he worked as a bank teller, but still enjoyed going dancing, sneaking into outdoor movie theaters, and riding a 10-speed bicycle.
In 1969, he met the love of his life, Maria Socorro Diaz, when she walked onto a packed city bus and he offered her his seat. They would marry a year later and move to Paterson, N.J., where they would have three children — Richard, Gina, and David.
Virgilio instilled his love of hard work, Latin and contemporary American music (he would encourage David to become a DJ), futbol/soccer, cycling, dressing sharp, and socializing with a sense of humor to all of his children. He also impressed upon them the importance of continuing onto a higher education, something he could not complete as he and his wife worked several blue collar jobs to give them a better life.
No matter how tired he was from a long day’s work, Virgilio would do everything possible for them to have an “American” upbringing, complete with bicycling trips to local parks, pickup softball games, or day trips to New Jersey beaches, baseball stadiums, or amusement parks. Sometimes the weekend fun would consist of projects around the house with cookouts in the backyard, or a trip to the music store, where he would hum the latest popular music to salesmen so that he could buy a 45-inch for the children to play on the record player. No matter what, it was always fun.
Virgilio worked a variety of jobs, as a machinist, maintenance person, and lastly, a custodian in schools and the Teaneck Police Department, where he retired early due to his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease in the late 1990s.
Parkinson’s is a tough neurodegenerative brain disorder that progresses slowly in most people. Most people’s symptoms take years to develop, and they live for years with the disease. Virgilio lived for nearly 20 years with Parkinson’s, and he was predeceased by his brother, Raul, who died due to complications related to the same disease in 2011.
If we could do one thing over, we would have had him start some type of an exercise regimen earlier, as opposed to telling him to rest more (something people tend to say to those who are ill) when the disease was “new” to us. Exercise has been shown to be very beneficial to those with the disease.
Virgilio was hopeful in medical advancements in the Parkinson’s world, as he underwent deep brain stimulation in the early 2000s, and while it took away the tremors, the one side-effect he had was the worsening of his speech. An ardent communicator (much like his daughter, Gina!), this often frustrated him.
Things he missed doing the most? Riding his bicycle and traveling to visit his family in Florida, Colombia, and others scattered throughout the world. He talked about them very often. He lives fondly in their memories.
There are many things he continued to enjoy up until he broke his hip in January 2015: watching the Colombian soccer teams, riding a recumbent bicycle, listening to music (while playing the maracas), and watching movies. Most of all, he was able to live many happy years in the home with the love of his life, Maria, and frequent visits from his grandson, RJ, and more recently, his granddaughter, Bella.
We ask that you remember Virgilio’s fondness for life and celebration every time you hear Colombian music or funny stories. We ask that you consider making a donation to either the Micheal J. Fox Foundation for Research, which is working to find a cure, or the National Parkinson Foundation, which strives to improve the lives of those living with Parkinson’s disease.
Virgilio is survived by his wife, Maria, his sons Richard and David, daughter Gina, as well as brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, and other extended family, in Florida, Canada, Colombia, Argentina, and Spain.
A small service will take place at East Ridgelawn Cemetery in Clifton, N.J., at noon sharp on Saturday, August 13.