Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Rose Fieramosca

You’ve probably never heard of today’s New Jerseyan of Italian heritage. She wasn’t famous, or rich, or any of the other things most would people consider noteworthy. She was a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, an aunt, a great cook, and a devout Catholic. She was my Grandmother – Rosina Fucetola Fieramosca.

Like many of my friends growing up, I grew up in a multi-generational household. I had no idea if this was unusual or special; it’s just the way it was. My immediate family was downstairs. Upstairs was my “extended family,” although I never knew such a word existed growing up. It was just “family.” Upstairs were my Grandparents and my Uncle Sonny. Sadly, my Grandpa passed away when I was very young, so it was always my Grandma and my Uncle – her eldest son. There were there for every day of my life, until the moment each of them passed away at home.

Rose Fucetola was born in Newark, New Jersey on October 21, 1905, the daughter of Lucia and Gabriel. She married her one and only love, Pasquale Fieramosca, on November 8, 1922. Over her lifetime, she had five children, six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

Me with my Grandma (left) and my Aunt Anna (right) at my wedding in 1994.

I don’t know if I really ever thought about it at the time, but it was an incredibly special way to live. Sunday dinners with the family upstairs. Dinner downstairs during the week, including Grandma and Uncle Sonny. If you were sick, she would make you pastina. If you were hungry, she would heat up leftover meatballs from Sunday. After spilling wine on a white top once, she was the only one who could make it look like it was brand new. Dying house plant? Bring it to Grandma. It would magically come back to life. When I made my Confirmation, I took the name “Rose” for her and my Sponsor – my cousin Rosanne.

In the late 90s, the book Newark’s Little Italy: The Vanished First Ward by Michael Immerso was published. If you ever wondered what it was to grow up in an Italian household in New Jersey, this book provides the perfect description. I took her to the Barnes and Noble on Rt. 46 in Little Falls for a lecture by the author. We arrived early so she could sit up front and make sure she heard everything. After his talk, people had the opportunity to ask questions. Whenever he didn’t know something, she would whisper the answer to him. He finally laughed and said “I’m being coached.” She had a memory that didn’t quit. At the end of the evening the line for attendees to speak with my Grandma was longer than the line to meet the author. It was a wonderful evening.

She was not just a woman proud of her heritage; she was a proud American. In my entire lifetime, I can only think of a handful of times I heard her speak Italian, even though she was completely fluent. When I was a child I would bring Italian books home from the library and beg her to read them to me and teach me. Her answer was always the same, “you are an American and you speak English.” She believed in the great American experiment. I remember her telling me of stories of singing patriotic songs during WWII and flying American flags.

Finally, she was a woman of faith and made sure we were all instilled with that same faith. When she wasn’t able to go to mass any longer, I became a Eucharistic Minister so I could bring her communion.

Today is her 115th birthday. And while it is ridiculous to believe so, I wish she was still here with her family that loves her. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her.

This probably sounds like a typical life of someone who is far from noteworthy. However, I promise you, noteworthy is exactly what she was.. and still is.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: James Gandolfini

When many people think of Americans of Italian descent, they often think we are all in the mob, or “connected.” Many movies such as The Godfather add to the stereotype. Add to that shows like Jersey Shore, Housewives of New Jersey, and The Sopranos, and well…

While many depictions in New Jersey and mob movies show a lot of things that are not true, many more good things are true. Many of us talk about wonderful memories growing up with Sunday dinners, multi-generational families, and pride in our heritage.

Enter James Gandolfini

Gandolfini played “Tony Soprano” in the famed HBO series. He was a deplorable character, yet, he was able to show a human side of this man. Tony had many of the issues we all struggle with; anxiety, temptation; a frustration with his family – his “blood family” that is. James Gandolfini played the character perfectly. He able to play a guy from Jersey because he was a guy from New Jersey.

That “New Jersey” I often speak of is an intangible characteristic those of us from this state easily understand. Born in Westwood, Gandolfini was raised in Park Ridge, New Jersey, the son of an American-born mother and an Italian-born father. He grew up with a strong pride in his heritage and visited Italy often. He was in Rome when he passed away from a heart attack in 2013 at the young age of 51. In 2014, Gandolfini was posthumously inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

While he was proud of his heritage, he worked hard to show his love for America. Gandolfini never forgot the sacrifice his father made, earning a Purple Heart in WWII, and sought to make sure that all veterans received the care and respect they deserve. In 2007, Gandolfini produced Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, a documentary in which he interviewed injured Iraq War veterans. In 2010 he produced Wartorn: 1861–2010, which examined the impact of PTSD on soldiers and families throughout wars in U.S. history from 1861 to 2010. He also worked with the USO making meeting service members and was a spokesperson for Wounded Warrior Project.

So no, not all Americans of Italian descent are in the mob, but we all love our Italian heritage. Gandolfini showed that pride in his role of Tony Soprano, and more importantly, in his daily life.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Dr. Steve Adubato

A modern-day New Jersey native of Italian descent I feel is deserving of recognition is Steve Adubato, Ph.D. He is someone I have admired since I was a teenager. Born in Newark, he was the youngest state legislator in the New Jersey General Assembly at age 26. Dr. Adubato earned both his master’s and Doctor of Philosophy degree in mass communication from Rutgers.

Steve Adubato, Ph.D.
Credit: steveadubato.org

I remember watching his program Caucus New Jersey on public access television when I was young. He asked probing and thoughtful questions and was always able to get a response, unlike what often happens in politics and reporting today.

Now he is an individual with a national presence. He has television shows, a podcast, and is often a guest speaker at institutions of higher learning across the country, including my alma mater, Seton Hall University, where he serves as a Buccino Leadership Institute Fellow and is teaching a master class in the spring 2020 semester.

With a focus on leadership and communication, his most recent book, Lessons in Leadership, Dr. Audobato focuses on self-awareness, empathy, and how to be a leader at home and work.

He currently anchors three television series produced by the Caucus Educational Corporation (CEC); State of Affairs, One-on-One, and Think Tank. They are available on multiple platforms, including PBS, NJTV online, and YouTube.

Dr. Adubato has taught many to think critically as well as ask important questions on behalf of his fellow New Jerseyans. He has certainly made his home state, and his home county of Essex, proud.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Msgr. Joseph Granato

If there is anyone who should be the first individual I highlight for Italian Heritage Month, it must be Msgr. Joseph Granato. Msgr. Granato borders on rock star status at St. Lucy’s Church in Newark, home to the National Shrine of St. Gerard. He served St. Lucy’s for 54 years. It was the only parish he ever served. He was the third pastor of St. Lucy’s Church.

St. Lucy’s Church, Newark

Joseph Granato was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 9, 1929. His parents were Anthony Granato and Theresa DePiano Granato. The family moved to Newark during his infancy. His brother was Rev. Anthony F. Granato, Pastor of St. Anthony’s Church, East Newark.

On June 4, 1955, his day of ordination; he found his place of religious assignment was to be St. Lucy’s Parish.

Then Father Granato, was appointed Administrator in 1971 and shortly thereafter in 1977 was assigned by Archbishop Peter Gerety as Pastor of the Church he so dearly loved. On July 16, 1979, he was awarded the honor of being named Monsignor by His Holiness, John Paul II. He remained as Pastor of St. Lucy’s and served the community faithfully during his 54 years in the priesthood.

On October 29, 1999 Monsignor Granato was awarded the first Msgr. Joseph Granato Italian Culture Medal at Seton Hall University. The medal celebrates distinguished achievement in the promotion and preservation of Italian culture in the state of New Jersey.

St. Lucy’s Church is a place of wonderous art and offers a space for quiet prayerful meditation. Each October, St. Lucy’s celebrates the Feast of St. Gerard. The days of the Feast are filled with masses, celebrations, food, and a procession through the streets of Newark.

Sadly, this year almost all the events are cancelled, due to the inability to attain the proper permits from the city of Newark due to the pandemic.

This is an incredibly important time for the church, as most of their fundraising takes place during the few days of the Feast. If you are able, I urge you to donate what you can so St. Lucy’s can continue to do its good works in the community and carry forward its 100-plus-year history, which includes the tremendous contributions of Monsignor Granato.

National Italian Heritage Month

October of each year is National Italian Heritage Month. While my married last name is no longer Italian, I am proud of my heritage. It helped mold the adult I am today. I come from a line of truck drivers, beauticians, stay-at-home mothers, and police officers. The generations before me made sacrifices so I could grow up in a big family with memorable Sunday dinners that always included Grandma’s gravy and meatballs.

Throughout the month of October, I’ll be highlighting different Italians and Americans of Italian descent that have made a positive impact on New Jersey. There are many Americans of Italian descent that have made incredibly important contributions to New Jersey as well as the nation. I hope you enjoy my posts this month. May they entertain and enlighten.

Mangia bene, ridi spesso, ama molto.
~Eat well, laugh often, love much.

Going Old School in Jersey

My entire career has been focused on high tech. From prepress to IT to SEO, everything I’ve done has involved the latest in technology.

I think that’s why people are so surprised to hear I have analog hobbies. I fly fish, as well as tie my own flies. I do yoga, hike, crochet, felt, weave, spin my own yarn, garden, and am learning to sew on a 1951 Singer. I also love photography; old school photography – with film.

For as long as I can remember, I loved photography. There was a point when I was young I actually wanted to be a photojournalist. However, as life became busier, that idea was put aside.

One of my shots from college. My then-boyfriend (now husband) preparing for a marching band competition. Like Raso and Fedele, he is also a “Bill on the Hill” graduate.

I picked up photography again in college when I registered for a film photography class. I used my father’s Canon F 35mm and learned to develop my own film in the bathroom of my home, much to my mother’s displeasure. Seton Hall University had two darkrooms and I spent hours in there working to create the best prints possible. For every roll of film I was able to come up with a few solid shots. While on the school paper, I would work with the photo editor on cropping and resizing. My print production and typography classes were great and I still use the skills I learned back then.

While my photography was eventually put aside, that knowledge served me well while working in prepress, print production, and on press runs.

About two years ago, I purchased a digital camera to get back into shooting again. But what I really longed for was old school photography. I went to a monthly used camera event in Hasbrouck Heights and picked up a Canon F – right back where it all started. Since then a dear friend gave me a Mamiya C300. I also have a Polaroid Land Camera from the 60s. Additionally, I’m toying with the idea of picking up either a Diana F+ or a Brownie Hawkeye.

So why am I telling you this long winded story? Stick with me.

I discovered the Film Photography Project quite a while ago and have placed orders with them several times. However, it is only recently I started listening to their podcast. Wow! I have been missing out on something great.

The The Film Photography Podcast is hosted by Michael Raso, Duane Polcou, and John Fedele – all Jersey guys. Raso, a proud William Paterson graduate (known lovingly as “Bill on the Hill”), brings a curious nature to tackling multiple film-related topics. Polcou has an encyclopedic-like knowledge while making the information easy to understand to the average enthusiast. Fedele rounds out the trio and has a long-standing friendship with Raso that began in the William Paterson darkroom. He is an accomplished videographer, as well as a great musician.

Each episode is full of great information, coupled with a lot of humor. They can switch topics from developing film at home to where to get the best plain pie in North Jersey. Their comedic banter is just great. Put as straightforward as possible – they have that Jersey attitude I live – and love. And yes, I love The Sopranos.

I am currently listening to the entire 10-plus year history; checking out a few old episodes, then a few new. I plan on listening to the entire backlog.

If you are interested in film photography, and I highly recommend it, I urge you to check out the Film Photography Podcast.

Class Action Park

“Shake it off…”

That was the phrase I heard regularly growing up. Whenever I came home with a scraped knee, a bruise on my arm, or even if I was upset about something, I regularly heard that phrase.

What is now often referred to “free range parenting,” was just called “playing outside” when I was a kid. You would go ride your bike, walk to a friend’s house, play with the neighborhood kids. You went out after homework was finished and you came home when the street lights came on.

No cell phones. No worries. And kids didn’t know terms like “liability.”

If you didn’t grow up in the 70s and 80s, it is hard to explain. You were expected to play outside with little to no supervision. Atari had just come out and very few families had one. We would ride bikes and play kick ball. Some kids in Belleville would spend their summer at the Rec House (the town recreation center) and participate in sports. In the winter we would go to Branch Brook Park and go sledding. I remember going full speed down the hill going right into the hubcap of a parked car nearby. I was told to just stand up and “shake it off.”

There were very few worries from parents about kidnappings, possible abuse, or going missing.

I will say my parents were pretty strict and kept me fairly sheltered. When I would go for rides on my bike, it was mainly to head up to the high school track. Not to run, but to go all the way up to the top corner of the stands and read. I was hardly an exciting kid.

Maybe that’s why I wasn’t prepared for Action Park.

I had seen commercials for the fabled park in Sussex County and begged my mother to take me. She repeatedly refused. Eventually another friend and I nagged our mothers enough, and they gave in.

Action Park is a regular topic in Weird New Jersey. Once I even wrote a letter to the magazine about my one – and only one – day at Action Park. I was very excited when I saw it published. This is the edited version of my letter:

I definitely remember Action Park as a kid. My mom and her friend took me, my brother and her friend’s kids to Action Park only once. After much nagging, my mother finally agreed to take me on the Alpine Slide. My first clue that this was a bad idea should’ve been the blood-covered teenager being carried half-way down the mountain after her car flipped over. Of course, I was too young to think, “this might be a bad idea.” Well, I was scared out of my wits and almost ripped the so-called “brake” right off, I was pulling on it so hard (to no avail). I don’t remember going on anything else because I think I probably blocked it out of my memory. –Andrea Lyn Van Benschoten

Tonight I watched the documentary of the now defunct park, Class Action Park. I had heard the stories growing up, but some of the “behind the scenes” stories were funny, sad, and shocking all at once.

Action Park couldn’t exist anywhere else or at any other time. Those of us from Jersey are proud to have our battle scars. You need to be from Jersey to understand what it is to be Jersey proud. And to grow up during the 80s meant you were sort of on your own. Many teenagers headed to Action Park and enjoyed the same freedom.

Action Park – where YOU control the action!

That was the mantra of Action Park. The truth was, there was no control. Kids ran the park. There was excessive drinking and many deaths. Depending on the reports, at least six individuals died during the heyday of the park. In 1986, the New Jersey Herald reported 110 injuries were logged for the summer 1985 season, including 45 head injuries and 10 fractures. That figure grew to 330 for summer 1986. Injuries were so common, the park actually purchased an additional ambulance for the town of Vernon.

Eventually, unsupervised time turned into chaos and death.

Most of my teenage years included skiing at Vernon Valley; the winter version of Action Park. They used the same lift in both the winter and summer, and you could see the snow-covered track of the Alpine Slide. The ride that scared me half to death many years before. It is worth mentioning ski equipment was stolen if left unlocked; the snow machine was often pointed directly where the lift was, so you were covered in snow and ice by the time you made it to the top of the mountain; the lights would regularly shut off while you were skiing down; the mountain was often ice covered. I actually saw someone take a mogul and fly into a pole once.

I also broke my hand skiing once and sprained my wrist another time. I “shook it off” until I arrived home and my mother took me to the doctor the next day to put a cast on. No muss, no fuss. Guess I had a little Jersey toughness in me after all.

Belleville Loses a Favorite Son: Tommy DeVito

Music is a huge part of the history of New Jersey. The Boss. Bon Jovi. Southside Johnny.

The Four Seasons early in their career, from left: Bob Gaudio, Frankie Valli, Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito. Credit: via The Four Seasons

There is another part of music history that goes back a little further. Those greats include Francis Albert Sinatra, Bucky Pizzarelli, Connie Francis, and The Four Seasons. Straight from Essex County, and more specifically, my hometown of Belleville, Gaetano “Tommy” DeVito was one of the original members.

This week, Tommy’s voice fell silent as he was lost to complications from Coronavirus.

“It is with great sadness that we report that Tommy DeVito, a founding member of The Four Seasons, has passed,” according to a statement released from Frankie Valli & Bob Gaudio. “We send our love to his family during this most difficult time. He will be missed by all who loved him.”

The youngest of nine, Tommy was born in Belleville into an Italian-American family. At eight years old, he taught himself to play his brother’s guitar by listening to music on the radio. He quit school after the eighth grade and by the time he was 12, he was playing for tips in a variety of local hangouts.

His professional career began officially in the 1950s with his group, The Variety Trio. The group went through several incantations until it turned into The Four Seasons after childhood friend, Joe Pesci, introduced him to Bob Gaudio. In September of 1962, the single “Sherry” hit number one. This was the first of three consecutive chart-topping hits from the group. Other hits included “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.”

As a little girl I remember going upstairs to my Grandmother’s and would listen to The Four Seasons records on my Uncle Sonny’s stereo. It is a wonderful memory.

After Tommy left the group, good friend Joe once again helped him get parts in movies like Casino. He also recorded an album of Italian folk songs.

“Jersey Boys” opened on Broadway in November 2005 and highlighted the history of the famed group. At the beginning of the show, there’s a shoutout to Belleville; and anyone in the audience from the town gives a yell and applause on its announcement.

Belleville has been home to many favorite sons and daughters. From medal of honor recipients to musicians. Tommy DeVito is definitely among our favorite sons.

Remembering September 12th

Tomorrow is the 19th anniversary of the most horrific attack on United States soil. Like many, I remember every minute of the day. The report on the radio that there was “some kind of accident” at the Twin Towers. Searching feverishly for the flight information for two of my colleagues that were flying out of Newark Airport that morning. The panic I tried to quash in my heart as I waited to hear word on my friend’s father. Watching the smoke rise as I drove to School 9 in my hometown of Belleville to check on my friend’s mom.

The 9-11 Memorial in New York City

I remember my husband calling to check on me from the school where he was teaching at the time. I told him I was going to School 9 to check on my friend’s mother. He said one word; “good.” He said he was staying at school until every child was picked up and to see if anything else was needed to be done.

I grew up seeing those two gleaming buildings as I drove down Division Avenue in Belleville. There’s a picture somewhere of me and my “lil’ sis” on her front lawn and you can see them far off in the distance. Now, her father’s 9-11 pin is proudly framed and hangs on the wall in our home.

We watched police, fire fighters, and EMTs rush to the site, never to be seen again. We watched people help each other try to get out alive. We watched people go their local hospital and wait on line for hours to donate blood, anticipating tens of thousands of wounded. The wounded never came.

We all talk about the shock and horror of 9-11. But this year, more than any other year, I choose to remember 9-12.

Within a short period of time, we started to hear the stories of people staying behind with those who couldn’t get out. Men carrying down those who were handicapped. Others who went up the stairs to try and help evacuate those who were trapped instead of running to safety.

America came together to fight back.

We said with one voice – no. We said we stand together as Americans and we refuse to be afraid. We were Americans first. Not Democrat, Republican, or Independent. Not liberal, conservative, or moderate. Not black or white.

Americans.

It is safe to say 2020 has been an incredibly tough year. Frustration. Loss. Sadness. Confusion.

Today, we are a fractured nation on many fronts. There’s a lot of yelling and not much listening.

I wish everyone could remember our nation’s response on 9-12 this year.

Every year, many of us utter the words “never forget.” May we never forget 9-11, but even more, may we never forget 9-12.

Protecting Our Parks

We’ve all had to make alternate plans this year due to COVID-19 and the following lockdown. As a result, many had to cancel vacation plans and stay local. And that means lots of people in town, county, and state parks.

Unfortunately, not everyone values our park systems.

Just a few weeks ago, Hedden Park in Dover/Randolph was closed for two weeks due to vandalism, litter, damage to the creek, and a dumpster fire. Today, we went to a park and unfortunately the continuation of poor behavior.

HeddenPark

Damage to Jackson Brook at Hedden Park. Credit: NJ.com

Two weeks ago while at the Delaware Gap, we had the opportunity to talk to a Park Ranger and he told us they spend an incredible amount of time telling people to get out of the small creeks, as they are not for swimming and have no lifeguard supervision. As we were leaving, we observed several emergency vehicles heading towards the Gap. When we returned home and turned on the television, we learned someone died right in the area where we were.

Some of you may normally not bother visiting your local parks. And I can spot newbies a mile away. When they come to the park they. bring. everything. If they have children, some actually bring high-chairs and play pens. Kids are either in the river or ignoring the beauty around them as they play on their phones.

Cigarettes-sm

Trash left behind at Saxton Falls.

If you are new to New Jersey’s parks, I hope you enjoy, but I ask that you respect the space. Do not dam up any creeks or rivers to create swimming holes. Moving rocks will release sediment and upset the ecological balance of the water system. It is also a swimming hazard. There have been five drownings at the Delaware Water Gap so far in 2020. Just today there was a water death at Upper Greenwood Lake. If you want to swim, go where it is allowed and there are lifeguards on duty. Don’t leave your trash behind. Carry in/carry out. Leave the space cleaner than how you found it.

When all of this is over, many will never go to a park again. Some might have just discovered a little spot near their home to enjoy the outdoors and have a new appreciation for open space. I ask on behalf of all of us that use parks in the Garden State on a regular basis, that you respect the natural space availed to you. These are wonderful spaces that have been set aside for all of us to enjoy. Please take only photos and leave only footprints.