Fulfilling a dream: Allegheny Township man, 94, relishes 4-month world cruise

·7 min read

May 14—Merle Sober of Allegheny Township knows how to "seas" the day.

Actually, 111 of them.

Sober, 94, recently completed an unaccompanied cruise around the world that took him to every continent except Antarctica.

"I had to go all the way — go big," Sober said during an interview at the Kiski Valley YMCA in Allegheny Township, where he's a member and frequently works out with his gym friends.

His voyage, which lasted close to four months, was on the Princess cruise ship Island Princess. The Island Princess features 16 decks, is 964 feet long and can accommodate 2,200 guests.

"They treated me so good," Sober said.

Sober said going on the cruise proved to be a lesson in patience.

"I've been wanting to go around the world for a lifetime, and I finally made it," Sober said. "I decided 70 years ago when I was young. I knew a couple that took a cruise around the world, and I decided then that's what I'm going to do."

A 1947 Freeport High School graduate, Sober served two years in the Army in Japan.

He and his late wife, Rosemarie, were married for 62 years. They made Allegheny Township their lifelong home. They raised one son, David Sober.

Sober retired after a 41-year career that included 21 years as inspector foreman with Allegheny Ludlum in West Leechburg.

"My wife didn't like to travel, so we didn't, and no cruise," Sober said. "I couldn't leave her for four months."

Sober faced a huge personal challenge when Rosemarie was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I took care of her for years," Sober said.

She died in 2018.

Then, the covid-19 pandemic hit, and his plans were delayed.

But Sober finally got his chance to travel the world. He flew from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and set sail Jan. 5.

Sober paid about $50,000 for his cruise, doling out a little extra for more privacy.

"I could have paid $25,000 for single occupancy, but they would have found me a roommate. I didn't want that. No one was going to ruin my trip," Sober said.

He prepaid all of his onboard tips, totaling about $1,400.

"I was never nervous about traveling alone," Sober said. "I felt calm and thought, 'How lucky am I to live through this? This is the culmination of my life.' "

Sober returned to Fort Lauderdale on April 27 and flew home to Pittsburgh.

He lives with son, David, 57, in Allegheny Township.

When Sober embarked on his journey, he told his son, "No news is good news."

Sober said he adapted easily to life at sea.

"I had smooth sailing," he said.

The cruise included visits to Spain, Italy, Croatia, the Suez and Panama canals, Bora Bora, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Turkey.

His favorite destination?

"Dubai — because I was up in the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world," he said. It has 163 floors.

A shore excursion in Turkey also made its mark on Sober.

"I loved the Turkish rugs," Sober said of his visit to markets selling handmade rugs in Kusadasi.

Sri Lanka and Tahiti were Sober's least favorite places.

"They were so poor," he said. "That was difficult to see."

Back in Allegheny Township, Sober's friends at the gym posted a large mural in the hallway titled "Where in the World Is Merle?"

"My friends at the Y had my picture, and they moved it to every port I traveled to," Sober said. "They knew where I was every day."

Kiski Valley YMCA membership director Rebecca Long describes Sober as a "true inspiration."

"Merle had a lot of people with him on his voyage, not physically, but he was in our thoughts and prayers daily," Long said. "We were all happy to see him home safe, happy and ready to tell of his adventures."

"It seemed so nice to me because I started working out here 16 years ago to rehab at the Y, and they've been so nice to me," Sober said.

Sober joined the Kiski branch after undergoing heart surgery in 2006.

"He's been very religious with his exercise," Long said. "I knew he doesn't let numbers (his age) get in the way of what he wanted to do in life. I believe he's inspired us all that we can do whatever we put our mind to and to enjoy life. And not let anything stand in our way."

"People helped me, and I celebrated my birthday on the cruise," Sober said. "It was very fun. They made a melon that looked like me."

Shipboard activities that impressed Sober included the live theater shows, a variety of entertainment and the food.

"I loved to have dessert and milk every night at 8:30 p.m. They had a sugar-free cake for me every night," Sober said. "I also liked the omelets, fresh fruit, shrimp, mashed potatoes, salmon and lamb.

"My cabin was simple and very clean. I wasn't in there much. Just at night because I had a routine every day."

His shipboard routine included trips to the ship's gym, fresh-air naps on Deck 14 and dinner at 4:30 p.m., followed by nightly trips to one of the many bars and lounges to listen to live music that included jazz, piano and acoustic guitar.

Living up to his last name, Sober remained just that.

"I don't drink alcohol," he said. "I drank mango juice every day on the ship. It was so good."

He attended the nightly shows, which included ventriloquists, live music, musicals, veteran-themed meetings and the like.

A deluxe pedicure at the ship's spa was a special treat.

Animal sightings from the ship's deck included dolphins, sea turtles and a whale.

But Sober didn't rack up a zillion vacation photos — he doesn't own a cellphone.

"I don't like those things," he said.

Sober relied on fellow passengers who helped to supply him with photographs documenting his trip.

Hope and Joel Cohen of Bakersfield, Calif., spent time with Sober on an excursion in Dubai and celebrating his 94th birthday.

Joel Cohen said Merle preferred to use his disposable camera he bought at Walmart.

"I didn't even know they made them any longer," Joel Cohen said.

The couple took numerous photos of Sober enjoying cruise activities. Some of those photos included Sober socializing with crewmembers, eating his daily sugar-free cake and capturing the moment when he received a red cloth drape for visiting Indonesia's Komodo Island.

"Merle is an inspiration to us less-senior cruisers. We were happy to meet him and spend time with him. The advice he gave us was to enjoy a long and prosperous life. 'Don't sit,' he told us," Joel Cohen said. "What a guy!"

The Rev. Sue Washburn of Cross Roads Community Presbyterian Church recently visited with Sober, a church member.

"I'm amazed at his courage. There are not many people brave enough to go on such a long trip, to so many different places. What a way to experience the wonder of this world and its many different cultures," Washburn said. "Merle waited many years for this adventure after caring for his ailing wife. Then he had to wait out the pandemic. I'm so glad he was able to get this once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Sober said he's eager for more time at sea.

"I'd go again — anytime," he said. "I hope I live long enough to go on another one."

Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joyce by email at jhanz@triblive.com or via Twitter .