As the school year begins, I think back to growing up in Belleville and starting school in September. I have many wonderful memories of that time. In sixth grade I was part of the school patrol and guarded the kindergarten door. In middle school, I accompanied the chorus on piano for the first time. In high school I spent most of my time in the band room, where I felt at home.
But two great memories, believe it or not, took place in fourth grade with Miss Stackfleth at School Seven. She was an incredibly hard teacher and she scared most of us kids half to death with her strict ways and her paragraph-long sentences she would hand out as punishment if you did something wrong. However, she did begin to instill two important traits in me; my love of country and my love of New Jersey.
Every morning we would begin our day with the Flag Salute, like every other classroom. We would then continue our show of patriotism with the singing of a song. She played piano and had one in her classroom. Each day a different song would be selected and she would teach us the words and melody. In short order we learned several songs like This Land is Your Land and You’re a Grand Ol’ Flag. I still remember the words to many of those songs today. And I thank her for sharing them with us.
When it comes to my love of New Jersey, that took the entire school year. When I was in the fourth grade, which was a long time ago, history class was focused on New Jersey history. I remember it starting with “what do you think our state looks like?” We had answers like “a seahorse” and “the letter S.” It moved on from there. We learned about the Lenni Lenape tribe, our state’s important role in the Revolutionary War, it’s rich agricultural history, and more. It gave me an appreciation for an area beyond my neighborhood on Irving Street.
Ever since, my love of New Jersey has only grown. Yes, there are a lot of annoying things about our state; the traffic, high taxes, and don’t even get me started on the politics. But there are plenty more things to love. Like how you can enjoy the Atlantic Ocean, the Flatbrook River, living American history in Morristown, and awesome Italian food in my hometown of Belleville. We have a rich and wonderful state. I hope children are still learning about it. And I have Mrs. Stackfleth to thank for it. The teacher that actually terrified me.
Memorial Day weekend is upon us and we all look forward to it for different reasons. For many it is a three day weekend. It is the unofficial kickoff to summer. It’s barbeques, cold beer, and the beach.
Actually, no, it really isn’t.
It is a moment to stop and honor and remember the fallen. To commemorate members of the military that made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can all live free. Who gave that last full measure of devotion.
How it became a weekend for mattress sales, I’ll never know. It is simply appalling.
There are a variety of different events that take place all over the country. From the wreath laying at Arlington National Cemetery, to moments of silence and the playing of Taps at events in every small town, to parades with current military members wearing their Class A uniforms; you can find events near your location.
Here are a few events taking place around the state:
Closter: Memorial Day Parade, march from Closter Borough Hall, 295 Closter Dock Road, through center of town to Memorial Park on Harrington Avenue for services, concluding with food and refreshments at Closter Elks Lodge, 148 Railroad Ave. 10 a.m. May 30.
Garfield: Memorial Day Parade, march from Veterans Monument on Midland Avenue to Garfield VFW Post 2867, 340 Outwater Lane, 11 a.m. May 30. 973-772-4696.
Lodi: Memorial Day Observance, 8:30 a.m. Ambulance Corps ceremony at 72 Kimmig Ave., 9:15 a.m. fire department ceremony at 99 Kennedy Drive, 10:15 a.m. VFW ceremony at 163 Union Ave., 11 a.m. American Legion ceremony at 41 Union St., and 11:45 a.m. police department ceremony at 1 Memorial Drive, followed by “Walkway for Peace” ceremony, May 30. 973-365-4005.
Mount Laurel: Memorial Day Tribute, wreath laying at Veterans Memorial, 6 p.m. May 26, Laurel Acres Park, 1045 S. Church St. 856-727-0595.
Cherry Hill: Memorial Day Service, ceremony at War Memorial cohosted by American Legion Post 372 and Jewish War Veterans Post 126, honoring 75th anniversary of the US Air Force with US Army Reserve Lt. Col. Daniel S. Bash as keynote speaker, 11:30 a.m. May 30, Carman Tilelli Community Center, 820 Mercer St., 856-488-7868.
Voorhees: Kirkwood Memorial Day Parade, march from old Carriage House Restaurant, 1219 Kirkwood-Gibbsboro Road, right on Walnut Avenue, left on Second Avenue, right on Chestnut Avenue, then right on Burnt Mill Road, ending at Kirwood Fire Station Veterans Memorial with wreath laying service, 11 a.m. May 30, Voorhees Township Fire Department, 2002 S. Burnt Mill Road., 856-429-7174.
Cape May: Memorial Day Ceremony, 11 a.m. remembrance in conjunction with the American Legion Post 193 and VFW Post 386 followed by U.S. Coast Guard Training Center Cape May detachments’ rifle salute and launching of flower boat from Gurney Street Beach, May 27, Soldiers and Sailors Park, Gurney Street and Columbia Avenue., 609-884-9525.
Glen Ridge: Memorial Day Parade, march beginning at Sherman Avenue and Baldwin Street and proceeding to memorial in front of Ridgewood Avenue School, 235 Ridgewood Ave., for memorial ceremony, 11 a.m. May 30, 973-748-8400.
West Orange: Memorial Day Ceremony, observance in front of the township municipal building, 66 Main St., 10 a.m., May 30, co-hosted by VFW Post 376 with WOHS Air Force Junior ROTC Squadron, township historian Joseph Fagan and vocalist Lynette Sheard. Special honoree will be the late Gordon Hansen, a West Orange High School graduate who posthumously was awarded the Purple Heart for his participation in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. His war-time trumpet will be used by Rob Adams for the playing of Taps.
Glassboro: Memorial Day Parade and Flyover, with F16 jet fly-over by the New Jersey Air National Guard 177th Fighter Wing in Atlantic City. Procession from Lehigh and University Boulevard to Whitney Avenue and High street, ending at Glassboro Fire Department, with solemn ceremony at Veterans Memorial Plaza, 10 a.m. May 30, Glassboro Town Square, North Main Street and Rowan Boulevard. 856-881-9230, ext. 88322.
Guttenberg: Memorial Day Observance, 11 a.m. May 30, Monument Park, 70th St and Blvd East.
Flemington: Memorial Day Parade, march from Hunterdon Urgent Care down Church Street, right on Main Street to Civil War statue, 9 a.m. May 30, 908-782-8840.
Edison: Memorial Day Parade, march from Plainfield Avenue and Division Street to post home, noon May 28, American Legion Father & Son Post 435, 43 Oakland Ave., 732-287-0900.
Sea Girt: Memorial Day Parade, march from Sea Girt Elementary School, 451 Bell Place, to the Plaza, followed by festivities at Baltimore Park, 8:45 a.m. May 30. 732-449-9433, ext. 130.
Roxbury: Memorial Day Parade, march from Meeker Street and Hillside Avenue in Succasunna to Main Street past library and right on Eyland Avenue, across Route 10 to Veterans Memorial on Horseshoe Lake Island, followed by ceremony presented by Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2833, 10 a.m. May 30, Horseshoe Lake Park, 72 Eyland Ave. in Succasunna.
Belleville: Memorial Day Ceremony, May 30, 11:00 a.m.: Dutch Reform Church Cemetery, 171 Main 12:00 p.m.: Veterans Memorial Park, Union Ave & Tiona Ave.
Budd Lake: Memorial Remembrance Day Ceremony, May 30, 10:30 a.m.-noon at All Veterans Memorial Ceremonial Grounds at Turkey Brook Park, 30 Flanders Road. Full event including Tolling of the Ascension Bell, Honorable Service Paver Installation, JROTC, and Rolling Thunder.
Oh, and don’t say “Happy Memorial Day.” There is nothing “happy” about it. It is a solemn day we all get to enjoy due to the sacrifice of the millions of military members that have ensured our freedom. And if you see a vet, say “thank you” and buy them a cup of coffee.
“A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town.” ~Harry Bailey
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” staring James Stewart as George Bailey. Originally a flop at the box office, it has found a place in the hearts of millions over the decades. What you may not know is the movie has strong ties to New Jersey, and even more so, my beloved Belleville.
Frances Goodrich was one of the screenwriters of this classic. Born in Belleville and raised in Nutley, Goodrich attended Collegiate School in Passaic, New Jersey, and graduated from Vassar College in 1912. Quite an accomplishment for a woman at that time. She married writer Albert Hackett in 1931 and the two together wrote some of the most memorable stories in the last century.
The couple received Academy Award for Screenplay nominations for The Thin Man, After the Thin Man, Father of the Bride, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. They also won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for their play The Diary of Anne Frank.
The screenplay and movie was based on the short story The Greatest Gift written by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1939. After being rejected by multiple publishers, Van Doren self-published 200 copies and gave them out as Christmas gifts in 1943. RKO purchased the story, where it was passed around until Frank Capra saw its potential. Capra worked with a few screen writers to prepare it for filming; Goodrich and Hackett were two of the writers on that small team.
Philip Van Doren Stern was born in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania and grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey and attended Lincoln High School in Jersey City before graduating from Rutgers University. He was a historian and author of some 40 works, and was best known for his books on the Civil War and was widely respected by scholars on the subject.
In 1938, inspired by Dickens’ A Christomas Carol, Van Doren penned The Greatest Gift. The author’s “Bedford Falls” is modeled on the charming town of Califon, also in New Jersey. The historic iron bridge in Califon is similar to the bridge that George Bailey considered jumping from in the movie.
So while the entire country can continue to love this iconic movie, New Jersey, and Belleville, can have pride in the story’s original writers.
“And to know who needs help, You need only just ask.” ~Trans Siberian Orchestra
Just about everyone loves their “old neighborhood” where they grew up. A lot of people in Jersey stay in that neighborhood their entire lives. Now, thanks to social media, even if we move away physically, we can still stay close to home.
This is a true blue neighborhood Jersey story, but it could take place almost anywhere. What it shows is that Jersey people take care of their own; no matter where they are.
A few weeks ago a friend from my neighborhood of Belleville was approached by a young boy while he was getting gas. He asked for a few dollars so he could get something to eat. As he told the story, I immediately thought exactly what he thought. Usually when someone is asked for money on the street, it is for alcohol or drugs. But he gave him a few bucks and waited to see what happened while he filled his gas tank.
He explained to us in his video the boy went into the mini mart next to the gas station and did buy some food and began to eat. This really got him thinking.
So he put out the word to his Belleville peeps on his hometown social media group. He single-handedly organized a toy and food drive. He identified a need and took action. Instead of social media being a negative part of a story, it helped bring fellow Bellevillites together from across the country. He placed collection bins on his stoop and let us all know there were there. The troops rallied and dropped off toys and food to his home. Those of us who did not live nearby had packages delivered to him. In the end, he worked with another local individual and was able to drop off the toys to Clara Maass Hospital and the food to St. Peter’s Church.
It is a good reminder to us all, especially at this time of year. You never know who may have a need. They may not ask for help. It is upon all of us to help our fellow man.
I can say with certainty, we in Belleville take care of our own. I’m thankful he recognized that moment and took action.
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.
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.
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.
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!
“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.
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.
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.
When I thought about who I should highlight first this year during Italian Heritage Month, I wanted to go with a local hero. Yes, she is a favorite daughter of New Jersey, but she is also a favorite daughter of my hometown, Belleville.
Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero, known professionally as Connie Francis, was born into an Italian-American family in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. She attended Arts High in Newark for two years before attending Belleville High School, where she graduated as salutatorian from BHS Class of 1955. The high school auditorium is now named in her honor. Additionally, “Connie Francis Way” can be found at the corner of Greylock Parkway and Forest Street in Belleville, near the house in which she grew up.
Students sitting in that auditorium today may not know the importance of Concetta Franconero to our “Beautiful Village,” but those of us of a certain age certainly do. Early in her career, Arthur Godfrey made two recommendations to her. First that she drop the use of her accordion in her act. Second, that she change her name from Concetta Franconero changed her name to Connie Francis “for the sake of easier pronunciation.” So she officially became Connie Francis to the world.
Her life has been full of triumph and tragedy. She’s had many top songs we all know and love. I am particularly fond of Where the Boys Are and her rendition of Mama. She also acted in several movies during her young career. In the late 1960s, Francis went to Vietnam to sing for the troops. Through the years, she has performed charity work for organizations such as UNICEF, the USO and CARE.
Deep sadness struck her life several times, unfortunately. The first time was in Westbury, New York, following a performance at the Westbury Music Fair. Francis was the victim of a brutal rape and robbery after an intruder broke into her hotel room and held her at knifepoint. She nearly suffocated under the weight of a heavy mattress the culprit had thrown upon her. Her attacker was never caught.
In 1977, Francis underwent nasal surgery and completely lost her voice. She went through three more operations to regain her singing voice, but it took four more years to regain that lovely voice of hers.
In 1981, further tragedy struck Francis when her brother, George Franconero, Jr., with whom she was very close, was murdered by Mafia hitmen. Franconero, who had twice given law enforcement officials information concerning alleged organized-crime activities, was fatally shot outside his home in North Caldwell.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan appointed her as head of his task force on violent crime. She has also been the spokeswoman for Mental Health America’s trauma campaign. She worked hard to turn her personal tragedy into a story of triumph and inspiration for others.
In 1984, Francis published her autobiography, Who’s Sorry Now?, which became a New York Times bestseller.
Francis continued to perform and record and prove what Belleville and Jersey tough means. That’s why I felt she deserved to be the first person I honored during this year’s Italian Heritage Month.
I started this blog to share with the world all that is wonderful about New Jersey. And I would say almost all my posts are positive and highlight what I love about the Garden State.
Sadly, this is not one of those posts.
Absolutely everyone who knows me knows I grew up a dedicated band kid. It shaped my young life. It taught me important skills beyond music. I learned about teamwork, pride, confidence, and the brotherhood that exists among all band members, no matter where they are located.
I am a proud kid from Belleville; what we lovingly refer to on our Facebook group as the Motherland. We may not have always liked each other, but we could always count on each other.
This is why I feel compelled to stick up for my fellow Belleville High students and, more importantly, my fellow band kids.
On September 10th, Belleville played our local rival Nutley for the Mayor’s Cup. I’ll be honest; I never paid attention to the game. I was there for halftime. While I didn’t get to the game in person, I was excited to see someone uploaded the halftime show to YouTube.
Well, I was excited.
Excitement turned to immediate outrage. Not because of the band, but because of the Nutley football team. The band just started their halftime show when the Nutley football team appeared and actually had the audacity to start warm-ups ON THE FIELD! To make matters worse, the referees had a nice coffee clutch around the 20 yard line. The final insult is that this all took place on Belleville’s home turf.
I was completely appalled! These kids work just as hard as anyone else. They deserve respect. Where was the coach on the Nutley side? There was not one adult on the Nutley side that thought “this isn’t right?”
I feel coach Vick of the Nutley football team owes the Belleville Marching Band and their director an apology. He should lead by example and teach his kids that band kids, regardless of the town they are from, work hard and deserve their time on the field.
Coach Vick, you need to be better. And you need to teach your kids to be better.
It’s a question all of us have asked each other; for those of us who were alive and old enough to remember.
Americans seem to find themselves asking that type of question every so often when a major event happens.
The Pearl Harbor attack
The assassination of President Kennedy
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr
The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster
Just like everyone else, I remember every single moment of that day. The perfectly blue sky. The confusion as we tried to understand what happened. The panic as we realized we had colleagues on planes that morning. The relief when we knew they were safe. The profound sadness when we learned two colleagues from different offices were on the hijacked flights. The shock when word made it around the office that the sister of another colleague was in one of the Towers. The focus when I drove to School 9 in Belleville to check on the mother of one of my best friends from high school; her father worked in the Towers and thankfully made it home that day. As I drove down Greylock Parkway in Belleville, I couldn’t believe the Twin Towers just weren’t there. Memories run together and are separate at the same time.
A few days later I sat in shock as I thought about a job interview I had at the Towers not long before the attack. I was excited. My friend’s father coached me on how to maneuver through the security checks. I don’t remember the name of the company I was interviewing with or the name of the person from Human Resources. He was emphatic when he explained the job would be in the Towers; that it wasn’t a remote job. He told me there were people who didn’t want to work in the Towers after the first terrorist attack. I remember clear as day saying “lighting doesn’t strike twice.”
Oh how wrong I was.
If that job had worked out, I could’ve been right in the middle of that chaos. That thought still gives me shivers.
Growing up in Belleville, my house backed up to Hendrick’s Field; the Essex County public golf course. Planes would fly overhead all the time as we were on the approach to Newark Airport. I rarely paid attention to the noise overhead. When I was little, however, I do remember having nightmares of planes crashing on the golf course and seeing the fairways on fire in my dreams. Once the planes started to fly overhead again and that familiar noise was in the sky, I now look up every single time.
I’m lucky. The person I was most worried about came home that day. I know thousands of families will never be complete again.
I’ve only been to lower Manhattan two times in the last 20 years. Once after “the pile” turned into “the hole.” Once after a seminar that was a few blocks away, I walked to see the memorial. I haven’t been to the museum yet.
All these years later, I’m still not ready. I can’t tell you why. I flinch when I hear someone use the term “ground zero” and they aren’t referring to the attacks. I get annoyed when I see people planning events – happy events – on 9/11 each year. I don’t understand.
We all have feelings about that day; sadness, depression, shock, anger. We felt it then and many still feel it.
But I’m here to tell you, we need to keep talking about it. You see, we have an obligation. We made a promise to never forget.
We now have an entire generation that were not alive when that horrible day happened. Just like how I wasn’t alive when Pearl Harbor was attacked. To me at first, it was just a date in history. Then I heard first-hand accounts from survivors, from men who enlisted to fight in WWII, from family members who did what they could to support the war effort. It wasn’t just history anymore. I understood more.
Just like our parents and grandparents had an obligation to us to provide their first hand accounts and talk about what they experienced, no matter how painful it may have been, we have an obligation to future generations to share our stories, no matter the pain it causes.
We promised to never forget. I intend to keep that promise.
Music is a huge part of the history of New Jersey. The Boss. Bon Jovi. Southside Johnny.
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.