The woodshop at the Santa Clara Senior Center, 1301 Fremont Street, is abuzz with sawdust flying Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
It is a bastion of men and women of a certain age (50+) who turn pieces of wood into toys and furniture. Among them is 94-year-old Joe Aboussleman, a Santa Clara resident since 1960.
“Joe is the most productive guy in this shop, young or old,” said woodshop monitor Tom Freitas. “He’s resourceful. He takes old wood and makes it into useful products. He’s an amazing man.”
“I’m just enjoying life now,” said Aboussleman one Tuesday at the woodshop, where he has been coming for five or six years. “When you get to 90, you’ve got one foot on the banana peel.”
Since Aboussleman has two daughters, a son, seven grandkids and five great-grandkids, he never runs out of people to build things for. He transformed his daughter’s baby crib into a bench and turned an old chair into a flowerbox planter.
He made a miniature racing car for a great-granddaughter, an end table for a grandson’s room and a bookcase out of reclaimed wood for a granddaughter.
“To me, wood is one of the natural things in the world that you can do anything with,” said Aboussleman. “Each piece you pick up has a different smell to it — pine, oak, redwood. The world depends on wood.”
“What’s good about the woodshop is that it’s well equipped. It has everything you need to do a job,” said Aboussleman.
Aboussleman learned resourcefulness early. He was born in Brooklyn and moved to Maine with his family at 14. His Lebanese father passed away when Aboussleman was four, leaving his German mom with six boys, ages two to 12, to raise.
He helped out by shining shoes in New York City weekends and working at a produce store. He worked for a cobbler, making shoes. He collected old whiskey bottles and sold them to bootleggers for a penny.
“If it had a really good label, they’d give you three cents,” said Aboussleman. “We’d take a wagon to junkyards and pick up metal. You had to do things to survive in those days.”
All six of the brothers fought in and survived WWII. Aboussleman, the fifth son, joined the U.S. Navy and went to aviation school in 1942.
He repaired aircraft and made wood forms for aircraft parts for propeller planes. He retired from the Navy in 1962 after 20 years, last serving at Moffit Field, where he did hydraulic and metal work on jet aircraft.
Aboussleman retired again in 1987 after working 20 years at Fairchild Instruments, where he was a maintenance supervisor.
He and his late wife, Julie, who passed away in January of 2018, were married almost 63 years. He took care of her during the seven years she had dementia.
After Aboussleman finishes at the woodshop on Tuesdays and Thursdays, he goes to Santa Clara Catholic Cemetery to talk to Julie. Then he goes home and does his own house and yard work and cooking.
“I’m surprised more people don’t use the woodshop,” said Aboussleman. “Some days, nobody shows up. But now we have an influx of ladies.”
San Jose resident Carolyn Kameya has been coming to the woodshop since May. She used woodshop scraps to make a birdfeeder, a stool and a little box with drawers.
“It’s really nice to be learning new things and just focus on your project and not all the worries,” said Kameya.
Santa Clara resident Tova Cooper is working on her first project, a small box for her son’s cards.
“I came to the Senior Center for the clay studio,” said Cooper. “Then I met Tom and discovered he was a really good [woodshop] teacher. It’s really exciting. I have so many plans.”
“I monitor so people finish a successful project and feel good about it,” said Freitas.
For woodshop information, visit www.santaclaraca.gov/residents/senior-center or call the Senior Center at (408) 615-3170.