Learning the History of the Lenni Lenape

When I was in fourth grade the entire year focused on New Jersey history. As much as I disliked Mrs. Stackfleth, I will say she was great at teaching the history of the Garden State.

We spent a great deal of time learning about the Lenni Lenape, whose traditional territory spanned what is now eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Lower New York, and eastern Delaware. “Lenni-Lenape,” literally means “Men of Men”, but is translated to mean “Original People.” The two tribes we focused on the most were the Nanticoke-Lenni Lenape Tribal Nation and the Ramapough Lenape Nation; both from New Jersey. Just like most things in Jersey today, one was in what is now considered South Jersey and one was in what is now considered North Jersey.

Nanticoke-Lenni Lenape Tribal Nation is made up of descendants of Algonquian-speaking Nanticoke and Lenape peoples who remained in, or returned to, their ancient homeland at the Delaware Bay. Within the larger South Jersey tribe, there were three main groups; the Munsee (People of the Stony Country) lived in the north. The Unami (People Down River) and Unalachtigo (People Who Live Near the Ocean) lived in the central and southern part of the homeland.

The Ramapough Lenape Nation were a Munsee-speaking band, an Algonquian language-speaking people. Although the Ramapough Lenape Indian ancestors have resided in the Ramapough Mountains for thousands of years, there is little documentation in New York or New Jersey that refers to the nation. This is most commonly believed to be due to a lack of written language by the Ramapough people. As a result, most information has been passed orally from generation to generation, much of which has been lost to the ages.

The Nanticoke-Lenni Lenape Tribal Nation and the Ramapough Lenape Nation are both recognized by the New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs.

Throughout the year all the Tribal Nations in New Jersey as well as the New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs offer programs on their histories and original ways of life. It is a great way to learn about the original residents of Jersey.

Hoffa & Jersey: Perfect Together

“New Jersey and you… perfect together.” ~Governor Tom Kean

I remember seeing that commercial often growing up. It was a wonderful sentiment. Unfortunately, it turned into the tail end of a lot of jokes. From taxes to traffic, Jersey was perfect with a lot of things. Includes Jimmy Hoffa.

I grew up hearing the rumor he was a speed bump at Giants Stadium. That he had to be moved when the original stadium started to be built. Then, according to the book “I hear you paint houses,” Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran claimed to be the bagman who rubbed Hoffa out. However, when the house where he claimed the murder took place was searched, the DNA found did not match that of Hoffa.

Most recently, Phillip Moscato, Jr. said hitman Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio was the one who killed Hoffa. Moscato Jr. is the son of Phillip “Brother” Moscato, Sr., a Genovese crime family powerhouse in New Jersey who died of liver cancer in 2014 at the age of 79. Moscato, Sr. took the Fifth while testifying before the federal grand jury after Hoffa’s disappearance. A 1972 FBI Report described Moscaro Sr. as “one of the top loan sharks in Hudson and Bergen counties.”

A 1964 photo of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa outside the federal courthouse in Chattanooga. (Credit: Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP, File)

Federal investigators have long stated that Hoffa was murdered in Detroit when he disappeared on July 30th, 1975, and was reportedly transported to New Jersey by the Genovese crime family. It is believed that he was buried in the large dump that Moscato’s father owned in Jersey City, the PJP Landfill, known as “Moscato’s dump.” But Phil says that after one of his father’s mafia cohorts flipped and cooperated with the FBI in November of 1975, four months after Hoffa vanished, the body was moved so that authorities would not discover it.

That claim seems to have new life as the FBI has recently searched the PJP Landfill below the Pulaski Skyway. This search is related to interviews given by Frank Cappola, who was a teenager in the 1970s and worked at the old PJP Landfill in Jersey City with his father, Paul Cappola. Cappola said his dying father explained in 2008 how Hoffa’s body was delivered to the landfill in 1975, placed in a steel drum and buried with other barrels, bricks and dirt, according to reports from The New York Times and Fox News.

Frank Cappola spoke to Fox Nation and journalist Dan Moldea before he died in 2020 and signed a document with his father’s detailed story. So, out went the FBI… again. In late October of this year, the FBI searched the landfill. There’s no confirmation whether or not the FBI removed anything from the location.

So it seems Hoffa and Jersey will be perfect together for a little bit longer.

World War I Ended 100 Years ago… In New Jersey?

While many believe “the war to end all wars” ended in 1918 when the Armistice took place, technically the United States did not formally end World War I until 1921. Where did it end you might ask? You guessed it, New Jersey.

Allow me to explain.

The United States entered the Great War in April of 1917, almost three years after the War began. New Jersey would send 72,946 conscripts and 46,960 volunteers to fight. Camp Dix, later Ford Dix, opened in July of 1917, and the 78th “Lightning” Division was activated there one month later. Many New Jersey-born African Americans joined the 369th Infantry Regiment, a unit organized in nearby New York that went onto become the first black regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Force.

The women of New Jersey also made significant contributions to the war effort. New Jersey was the training site for approximately 300 women who served in the Army Signal Corps as bilingual long-distance operators. Jersey ladies campaigned in Liberty Bond efforts as well as volunteering to serve with aid organizations such as the Red Cross. Dupont hired countless women to work as munition makers at plants in Carney’s Point, Salem County.

From Salem County to Morris County, manufacturing was everywhere. In 1915, Hercules Powder produced 150,000 pounds of cordite per day at the company’s Kenvil plant (not far from where I live currently in Ledgewood). Even Singer Sewing Machine in Elizabeth converted their normal production to wartime materials. By 1918, New Jersey was the largest supplier of munitions in America.

Ultimately, New Jersey paid a heavy toll. Our beloved state lost 3,836 New Jerseyans to combat, accident and disease. You can find over 160 monuments dedicated to our brave fighters. A total of nine New Jerseyans were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, including Marine Gunnery Sgt. Fred William Stockham of Belleville, my hometown, better known to those of us as The Motherland.

So, how did the United States officially end involvement in WWI?

On November 11, 1918, Germany signed the Armistice at Compiègne, ending World War I. In January of 1919, the Paris Peace Conference began. In June of 1919, Allied and German representatives signed Treaty of Versailles. The United States signs a treaty of guaranty, pledging to defend France in case of an unprovoked attack by Germany. However, the first time the Treaty of Versailles was presented to Congress in November of 1919, it failed. Yes, I’m serious.

The marker where the American involvement of World War I ended. Credit: atlasobscura.com

The Treaty of Versailles was presented to Congress for a vote again in March of 1920 and failed… again. No, I’m not kidding.

Ultimately, the Knox-Porter Resolution was signed by President Warren Harding to officially end American wartime involvement in July 1921. It was signed in Raritan, New Jersey on July 2, 1921.

I would love to tell you President Harding picked New Jersey to sign the Resolution as a thank you for all the contributions our great state made to the success of the war effort, but I would be lying. The President was visiting Senator Joseph Frelinghuysen of New Jersey to play golf. The papers were delivered to the Raritan Country Club, where the President signed the resolution and officially ended World War I… during a break from his golf game.

Now all that remains from that famous spot is a marker just off the Somerville Circle, not far from (you guessed it) a shopping mall. It’s funny and sad at the same time.

So what have we learned?

First, as I have always known, we are an awesome state. Our ancestors played a key role in the success of War.

Second, as I have mentioned in previous posts, it is important we protect our historic landmarks. A marker on the side of a busy traffic circle is undignified. Protect our Jersey history. Our future generations are depending on us.

Finally, and most importantly, our state paid a heavy price. We owe our vets a debt that can never be repaid. So make sure this Veteran’s Day to thank a vet. Shake their hand, pick up their check at the diner, or buy them a cup of coffee while on line to pay at Dunkin Donuts. We owe them far more, especially those who gave their last full measure of devotion. May God bless them and their families.

Shop Local for the Holidays

As much as I tried to deny it, the summer is long gone. Now that the clocks have changed and it is dark before you get out of work, everyone has turned their attention to the holidays.

The problem this year, however, is the ongoing supply chain issue. Cargo ships wait out in the Atlantic and the Pacific to unload goods. The ongoing shortage of truck drivers across the nation. It’s enough to make you batty.

Or is it?

Every year I remind people to shop local for small business Saturday. With everyone starting to shop earlier this year due to all the panic, this reminder to shop local comes earlier than usual. And the great thing about Jersey is that there are plenty of special places to shop with a unique Jersey flair.

Just Jersey

The best place to start is at Just Jersey in Morristown. This special shop presents unique art, craft, food, and more from over 200 Jersey-based residents. From jewelry, to homemade jams, to glassware, you will find a great variety of unique items in any price range. Best part is they all come with that special Jersey flair we have all come to know and love.

Peters Valley School of Craft

If you have never been to Peters Valley, I highly recommend it. It is not just a great place to visit, you will enjoy a beautiful ride on the way there. Their facilities are located within the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, once the farm village of Bevans. Before that, it was the tribal ground of the Lenni Lenape people, whose ancestors were the first craftspeople and makers of the land. Bevans was lost to the Tocks Island Dam Project of 1960-70’s through eminent domain. Eventually the project was scrapped and the name Peter’s Valley was reinstated in remembrance of early settler and surveyor Peter Van Neste.

Peters Valley offers not just beautiful surroundings, but onsite classes in a variety of crafts. Know someone who always wanted to try blacksmithing or weaving? Consider paying for a class for them to attend. Looking for something handmade? Visit their two unique galleries and leave with a beautiful gift that is sure to create a lasting memory. The Holiday Market begins November 20th.

West End Garage

One of my favorite places in this state is Cape May. And the West End Garage is a really cool place. Filled with funky gifts, you’ll find something for even the hardest person on your list. Check out original art by Maggie May Oysters, who uses locally sourced oyster shells in her artwork or Patricia Jackson Jewelers, highlighting their Exit Zero collection.

Pretty Handy

Belleville mug from Pretty Handy

This great little Nutley shop takes “shop local” a step further. Not only are you shopping Jersey, you are shopping Essex County. Pretty Handy offers town swag for Nutley, Bloomfield, Newark, Clifton, and of course, my beloved Belleville. If you are trying to show your town pride, this is a great place to check out.

Reddie to Burn

Of course I can’t finish out this post without a mention of my favorite candlemaker, Jersey Girl, and Goddaughter, Alyssa Lyn Reddie. Reddie to Burn offers all-natural hand-made candles in a variety of scents. Each soy candle has plenty of scent, from pumpkin soufflé, to apple and maple bourbon, to plenty of others, there’s something to please every taste.

Get shopping!

No matter what you decide, I hope you will consider shopping local and supporting local small businesses and artisans. You are helping those right in your community; no supply chain issues!

Cumberland County Farmland Preserved

I am happy to share the following announcement from the New Jersey Conservation Foundation:

Daniel DeTullio bought his farm along the Cohansey River in Cumberland County in 1987 because of its scenic beauty and abundant wildlife.

He and his wife, Raquel, just preserved the nearly 30-acre property to protect it from future development. “It’s so peaceful and quiet and serene back there, it would be a shame to develop it,” said Dan.

On Sept. 13, New Jersey Conservation purchased the development rights on the DeTullio farm, ensuring that it stays farmland forever.

The farm is surrounded on two sides by the state’s Cohansey River Wildlife Management Area, and is bordered by a tributary known as Rocaps Run. The Cohansey winds through a mosaic of tidal marshes, woodlands and farms before emptying into the Delaware Bay. The area provides habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, including bald eagles.

DeTullio Farm
Credit: New Jersey Conservation Foundation

“The eagles back there are like mosquitos,” Dan joked. There are also plenty of wild turkeys, ducks, geese, owls, deer and other creatures. “You see a lot of things there that you don’t see anywhere else,” said Dan.

The DeTullios still own the farm, but the land is now permanently restricted to agriculture. Preserving the property will maintain the area’s rural and scenic character, protect wildlife, safeguard soil quality, and protect the land’s ability to recharge groundwater.

Funding was provided by the State Agriculture Development Committee (SADC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Cumberland County also contributed to the project by paying for property appraisals.

“We are thrilled to help ensure that this beautiful riverside farm stays farmland forever,” said Michele S. Byers, executive director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “We’re very grateful to the DeTullios for deciding to preserve their farm, and to our partners for providing funding to make this project possible.”

The DeTullio farm is located just south of Bridgeton, and a short distance from the Dutch Neck section of Hopewell Township, where New Jersey Conservation Foundation helped preserve several historic farms.

Most of the farm’s soils are “prime” and “statewide-Important” soils, the two highest quality classifications for food production. Much of the newly-preserved land is in open field agriculture, with smaller forested areas on its northern and southern sides.

This farmland preservation project advances New Jersey Conservation’s collaborative partnership with Cumberland County to save working family farms with outstanding agricultural attributes. It also builds upon New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s work to preserve farms and wildlife habitat in the lower Cohansey River region of Cumberland County.

Julie Hawkins, State Conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, praised the partnership that made the DeTullio preservation project successful.

“The New Jersey Conservation Foundation was the first nonprofit in New Jersey to successfully seek NRCS financial assistance for agricultural land preservation more than 15 years ago,” said Hawkins. “Partnership is key to preserving farmland in New Jersey and this effort couldn’t have been done without the help of State Agriculture Development Committee as well. SADC is our state’s leader in farmland preservation and was ranked #1 in the nation by the American Farmland Trust for its implementation of policies to protect farmland and support its viability. We’re grateful that NRCS funding can be a catalyst in New Jersey Conservation Foundation and SADC’s efforts to help family-run farms remain farmland for future generations.”

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: You!

For my last post for Italian Heritage Month, I felt I needed to highlight a very important person that is part of Italian heritage in New Jersey: you!

And when I say you, I mean the collective you; the Italian-American community in New Jersey.

All month I’ve shared stories of amazing New Jerseyans of our past and those who represent our future. Well, you represent that future as well!

There is a very specific reason I decided to make this post about our community. Not too long while scrolling through Twitter (yeah, I know), I came across a post from a woman who is a journalist and of Italian descent. She wrote an opinion piece about Columbus and how the holiday should be eliminated. I was curious as to what she had to say, so I clicked through to her article and read her piece. I disagreed with her premise, but hey, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. At the end of the piece, there were links to her other articles. I checked out some of her other articles and I quickly noted a pattern. First, I don’t think she has written anything happy. From Mother’s Day to Thanksgiving, she hates it all. Second, just about every article painted her heritage in a very poor light. I really felt like she is a self-hating Italian-American. It made me sad.

You’ve read my laments about the continued stereotyping of Americans of Italian descent in the media, the disrespect we face from individuals who look to demean our heritage, and just through the simple passing of time, all that makes our community special is starting to drift away. Very few actually care what past generations have contributed to our great state of the meaning of what it means to be of Italian descent. Ask five people tomorrow if they know when Italian Heritage Month is. Maybe you’ll get one correct answer, if you’re lucky. Therefore, it is up to us to make sure we pick up the flag that was handed to us by the generations before us and lift it high.

As a Gen-Xer, I usually just embrace my inner eyeroll when someone says something stupid about Italian-Americans because I know better. However, that is no longer the case. And it shouldn’t be the case for any of us.

My Uncle Chubby used to tell us to never forget where we came from. While I have always tried to heed his advice, it has brought new meaning to me over the last year. As I mentioned in my previous post, this year I joined two Italian American associations: the Italian American Once Voice Coalition and the Italian Sons and Daughters of America. I started listening to the Italian American Podcast, which provides fascinating stories and information about Americans of Italian descent. I am working on leaning Italian. Most of all, I make sure people are laughing with me, not at me.

As I have said, those of Italian descent is the last ethnic group that people not only make fun of openly, they are encouraged through negative stereotyping. Just as I started this blog to increase awareness to the wonders of New Jersey, I also am going to take a more active role in reminding people that our heritage is more than The Godfather and Goodfellas. And for the record, those idiots from Jersey Shore were from Staten Island.

So as this Italian Heritage Month comes to a close, I encourage all of us that are of Italian descent to make sure you preserve the history of your family and our collective heritage. Our future as a community depends on it.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Patrick O’Boyle

Now, I know what you are thinking. This is Italian Heritage Month. Why am I highlighting a guy with an Irish name? Stick with me and you will quickly see why.

So far this month, I have highlighted important figures who have been important parts of the foundation of Italian heritage and culture in New Jersey. But I worry about the future of what it means to be of Italian descent. It is up to us as a community to make sure we take what we have learned from the generations before us and carry it forward.

Enter Patrick O’Boyle. Yeah, I know. The name. Like I said, stick with me.

He may have an Irish last name, but he is exactly what we as a community need to make sure our history is not cast aside. To make sure our proud heritage is not forgotten or nothing more than a stereotype in movies. Even better, he is a true Jersey guy.

Originally from North Arlington, he has a strong Catholic faith. He attended Queen of Peace High School. He completed his undergraduate studies at Seton Hall University (another reason I like this guy) and received his J.D. from Seton Hall Law School. He has his own private law practice in New Jersey and is a professor of law at Montclair State University.

He may be an attorney, but I am convinced he is a teacher at heart.

As part of the ensemble that makes up The Italian American Podcast, his knowledge of Catholic history and canon law is simply impressive. His knowledge of Italian history is equally impressive; from food to culture to all that is Italian. Listening to him and the ensemble of the podcast is like sitting back and enjoying a cross between a lecture on Italian culture and eating Sunday dinner.

Patrick is working hard to protect our heritage and has been recognized for his efforts. He is the Vice-President for New Jersey of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America (ISDA) and President and Prior of the Congregazione Maria Ss. Del Sacro Monte di Novi Velia Salerno di Jersey City, NJ, a member of the Boards of the Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere and the Coccia Foundation for the Italian Experience in America, a Founding Board Member of the Sandumanghesi Del Cilento Society, the former New Jersey Area Coordinator and Member of the Youth Activities Board and Young Professionals Council of NIAF, and the Past National Youth Committee Chairman of Unico National, the nation’s largest Italian American service organization. He is also a Knight of the Order of Merit of Savoy, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and a Knight Official of the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George and the Order’s Vice-Delegate for the United States.

Patrick has inspired me to take a more active role in cherishing my heritage. I’ll be honest, when my Grandmother passed away, I felt like a lot of my connection with what makes me Italian was lost. A part of me died with her. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her. Every few years I made a half-hearted attempt to learn Italian. Needless to say, it hasn’t gone well. I just started up again.

I recently joined the Italian Sons and Daughters of America. As I mentioned, I am working on learning Italian. I’ve picked up on my family history documentation in Ancestry. Years ago I made a family recipe book with all the recipes written out by hand. I’ve been adding to it with recipes that weren’t documented anywhere at the time. I joined the Italian American One Voice Coalition. I am making a conscious attempt at rediscovering and preserving my family heritage as well as my ancestral heritage.

So my lesson to you is this; regardless of your heritage, take a page from Patrick’s playbook. Embrace and celebrate it.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: St. Lucy’s Church

If someone asked me what is the most important location associated with Italian heritage in New Jersey, I would say without hesitation St. Lucy’s Church.

Since its cornerstone was placed in 1891, St. Lucy’s Church in Newark has been a source of pride and devotion for the millions of Italian immigrants and the generations that followed. In 1998, St. Lucy’s Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The parish namesake, Saint Lucy (Santa Lucia), martyred in Sicily in third-century is the patroness of those afflicted with diseases of the eyes.

St. Lucy’s Church is the home of the National Shrine of St. Gerard. Every October, tens of thousands of the faithful flock to pay homage to St. Gerard. St. Gerard Maiella of Avellino was born on April 6, 1726. He was the only son of Benedetta and Comenico Maiella. Because of his frail health he was not immediately accepted into the Order but, due to his insistence and persistence he was finally accepted in May of 1749 and became a lay brother of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. St. Gerard passed away on October 16, 1755. In 1977, St. Gerard’s chapel in St. Lucy’s Church was dedicated as a national shrine. While it was never made official, he is considered by many to be the Patron Saint of Mothers.

The third pastor, Msgr. Joseph Granato, served the parish with dedication and faith in God’s providence for 54 years, until June 2009. For those of us who have met Msgr. Granato, he borders on rock star status. His dedication to St. Lucy’s and the community has earned him a spot on many prayer lists of families of the parish.

At its height, over 30,000 Italian immigrants lived in the one square mile around the church, known as the First Ward. For over 80 years, that neighborhood thrived and supported their beloved church. Sadly, the neighborhood came to its end in the post-World War II period. The main factor causing the disintegration of the neighborhood came in 1953 thanks to developers and the city government. They forced people give up their homes and move against their will, bulldozing in days what took over eight decades to build. City officials often referred to the First Ward as a “slum.” The Newark Housing Authority claimed its rebuilding efforts would slow or reverse the population shift to the suburbs, however, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Approximately 15 percent of First Ward residents left the city for good (including my family) the moment they were displaced. More than half the businesses in the clearance zone ceased to exist. Those homes were replaced with large buildings providing low-income housing. As the years continued, they were a great source of crime and an example of all that was wrong with Newark. Unfortunately, the damage was done at the point. The First Ward was destroyed and one of the most vibrant Italian communities in the country was history. All in the name of progress.

People with a connection to the area, and St. Lucy’s specifically, still return regularly for church. I am the fourth generation of my family that returns to St. Lucy’s every October for the Feast of St. Gerard. It is one of only two churches in the entire state where I feel truly at peace and able to prayerfully reflect and enjoy the silence.

I tell everyone I know, if you have never visited St. Lucy’s, take the time to visit this amazing church full of beautiful art and history, as well as a strong connection to the Italian community of New Jersey.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: John Basilone

In an earlier post, I noted that Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent made up approximately 10% of the entire fighting force during World War II; more than any other ethnicity. Despite Italian immigrants kept under surveillance and some put in containment camps, they volunteered by the thousands to fight against their Motherland.

One such great child of Italian immigrants was John Basilone from Raritan, New Jersey. One of 10 children, Basilone was born in Buffalo, New York in 1916. He grew up in Raritan. At age 15 he dropped out of school to work locally for a short time before joining the military.

Staff Sergeant John Basilone
Source: Wikipedia

He first enlisted in the Army in July 1934 and completed his three-year enlistment with service in the Philippines. Basilone was initially assigned to the 16th Infantry at Fort Jay, New York, before being discharged for a day, reenlisting, and being assigned to the 31st Infantry.

After his discharge from the Army, he again worked locally for a short period of time; this time as a truck driver. He wanted to return to Manilla and serve once again, so he reenlisted; this time as a Marine.

He went to recruit training at Parris Island, followed by training at Marine Corps Base Quantico and New River. The Marines sent him to Guantánamo Bay for his next assignment and then to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands as a member of “D” Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

In 1943, he returned to the United States to help with the War Bond effort. He was highlighted in Life and Movietone News. His hometown of Raritan had a parade in his honor. He helped raise money for the War effort.

While he appreciated all the accolades, he really wanted to be back fighting for his country. He requested a return to active duty multiple times. He was offered a commission, which he turned down, and was later offered an assignment as an instructor, but refused this as well. When he requested again to return to the war, the request was approved. He left for Camp Pendleton, California, for training on December 27. On July 3, 1944, he reenlisted in the Marine Corps.

After his request to return to the fleet was approved, Basilone was assigned to “C” Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division. On February 19, 1945, the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima, he was serving as a machine gun section leader on Red Beach II. With his unit pinned down, Basilone made his way around the side of the Japanese positions until he was directly on top of the blockhouse. He then attacked with grenades and demolitions, single-handedly destroying the entire strong point and its defending garrison. He continued to fight alongside service members until the very end. It is believed he was killed by a burst of small arms fire.

His actions helped Marines penetrate the Japanese defense and get off the landing beach during the critical early stages of the invasion. Basilone was posthumously awarded the Marine Corps’ second-highest decoration for valor, the Navy Cross, for extraordinary heroism during the battle of Iwo Jima.

He was the only enlisted Marine to receive both the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor in World War II. Two United States Navy destroyers bear his name.

He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia. He left behind his wife, Lena Mae Riggi, who was a sergeant in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve during World War II. They met while he was stationed at Camp Pendleton.

Basilone made America proud, especially at a time when the country needed heroes. He stood up to be counted in the new homeland of his family. He made not just his country proud, but New Jersey proud, as well as those of us who count ourselves among the 1.5 million New Jerseyans of Italian descent proud. We owe him a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Frankie Valli

“Newark, Belleville; Frankie Valli walks on water. As he should. Frankie Valli has been around so long he’s attached to everything and everybody. And they are very proud.” ~Steve Schirripa, Talking Sopranos podcast.

Belleville has been home to plenty of talent over the decades. Connie Francis, Joe Pesci, and of course Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, known to the world as Frankie Valli.

Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, aka Frankie Valli
Credit: discogs.com

As Schirripa says, he’s attached to everything and everybody. We all have a Frankie Valli story. For me, I have two. Castelluccio grew up in Stephen Crane Village on the border of Belleville and Newark. My Uncle worked as a maintenance man at Stephen Crane Village. He took the bus from our house in Belleville early every morning and came home every afternoon. As kids we were allowed to walk down to the end of the block and wait for him; but no further than the manhole cover!

His first single “My Mother’s Eyes” was a favorite song my Uncle Chubby would sing with his own band, Chubby O’Dell and the Blue Mountain Boys. To this day whenever I hear that song, I think of my Uncle Chubby and smile.

The music of The Four Season was part of the soundtrack of the youth of not just North Jersey, but America. Songs like “Can’t Take my Eyes off of You” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” are engrained in our memories. Castelluccio’s original inspiration was another Jersey boy, Francis Albert Sinatra.

The 45 of My Mother’s Eyes
Credit: Roots Vinyl Guide

A new generation was introduced to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in 2005 when Jersey Boys opened on Broadway and was an instant hit. Bob Gaudio, an original Four Seasons member, sought to make a musical from the discography of the band. He hired book writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, and director Des McAnuff. Brickman suggested creating a show about the band’s history, instead of repurposing their songs. Sharing the group’s “rags to riches” story. Everyone fell in love with their music all over again.

Castelluccio still tours and recently recorded a new album, A Touch of Jazz, which is his iconic voice singing his favorite tunes from the Great American Songbook.

So Castelluccio started singing in the early 50s and all these decades later, he is still growing strong. God willing, he still has a lot of music left in him.