Bill was born June 29th, 1922 into a large, close knit extended Italian family. The family didn’t have much; his father was a garment cutter. He grew up on 14th Street in Newark with his mother’s sisters and their families living either right next door or in the same building, which meant there were plenty of cousins to go along with a number of brothers and sisters. Bill was particularly close to his younger brother Dominic.
It was tough neighborhood, and Bill’s childhood resembled that of the bowery boys. One day playing stick ball on the streets, he heard gun shots ring out nearby. The mobster Dutch Schulz had been rubbed out.
Bill graduated from West Side High School in 1940. Bill seems to have lived a fairly care-free life for the next couple of years, working at his older brother Jim’s used car lot, hanging with his pals. Photos from the era portray Bill as a young man at ease with his buddies, with no shortage of friends. Bill and his pals won a city wide softball championship together in 1942.
Bill frequented a bowling ally, becoming a top flight bowler. Bill’s brother Dominic, was always on the lookout for an advantageous wager to place, and repeatedly took advantage of his big brother’s bowling prowess, placing bets on Bill when he was going up against unsuspecting lesser competition. Dominic had a job as a pin setter at the bowling alley and on a couple of occasions would orchestrate undetectable tips of pins in his brother’s favor when his bowling abilities alone weren’t enough to win the wager.
There was, however a dark cloud looming over the horizon, and in 1942 Bill heeded his call to duty by enlisting in the army, entering active duty in 1943, serving in the European Theater with the 101st Airborne Division, rising to the rank of sergeant. His mechanical abilities were put to good use in assignment to the motor pool. In the allied invasion to take back Europe Bill served as a glider pilot, helping to deliver a jeep behind enemy lines. He survived the Battle of the Bulge, and participated in the liberation of concentration camps, a traumatic memory his family heard him speak of only once. He was brought in to operate a generator to run a movie camera by which the atrocities of the camp were being documented. He witnessed countless human corpses, indescribable human suffering, surely altering him forever.
Following Germany’s defeat, there were some good times to be had while stationed in the army in France in the aftermath of the war. A notable memory involved Bill looking up his little brother Dominic who was also stationed there, and finding him up to his old tricks, relieving a couple of GIs of their spare cash in a game of craps.
A female lieutenant arrived on base in need of a driver, and singled out Bill with his good looks for the job. In that position Bill got a hold of his army buddies from Newark and began running bootleg French wine. They managed to get themselves kicked out of a French Convent where they were staying when the nuns realized they’d been raiding their champagne supply in the basement.
Following his discharge on February 26, 1946 Bill returned to Newark and the life he knew in his old neighborhood, finding work once more in his brother used car lot.
Later on, reflecting back on the course his life had taken, Bill recognized how easy it would have been for him in those days to have gone down the wrong path. He knew plenty of guys not so different from himself who had gone astray, ending up lost in the underworld.
But Bill always inspired loyalty in his friends, and was blessed in particular by an old buddy named Mario who was watching out for his future. One day Mario announced that they were going to take a road trip, so they took off heading south, ending up in New Orleans at Tulane University. Mario announced to Bill that he had taken the liberty of submitting an application on Bill’s behalf to attend Tulane’s Engineering Program.
As it turned out, Mario’s own application was turned down, though he ended up doing quite well for himself in a school up north. But Tulane opened their doors to Bill, and so he remained there for the next four years.
At some point during his time at Tulane a lovely young female nursing student caught his eye as she ran across the quad drenched by the rain.
In the company of guys, Bill was the consummate man’s man, but to women (as his daughter-in-law Janey described to me) the tall, dark and handsome Bill was irresistibly cute, adorable, and always the gentleman. It didn’t hurt that he was a great dancer, either.
And so Bill turned on the charm with the young drenched coed, whose name turned out to be Norma Jean — known simply as Jean — who responded in kind.
Bill and Jean came from quite different backgrounds – Jean was a Southern Baptist from a small town in Mississippi – Bill an Italian Catholic from a big city up North. But there were underlying commonalities: she too had come from a big family of modest means – one of the oldest of nine children. And hers was also strong stock: when her father died when Jean was a teenager, her strong and determined mother who worked as a nurse to support her family stood up to the welfare department when they tried to break up the family.
Bill and Jean ended up eloping, getting married on March 11th of Bill’s final year at Tulane. After his graduation in 1951 the newlyweds headed back to Newark, where they first lived with Bill’s mother at the old home on 14th Street. Though not Italian by blood, Jean adapted well, becoming the best of Italian cooks.
Bill worked as a draftsman, and then found permanent employment as an avionics designer with ITT Corporation in Nutley where he would continue to work for the next 38 years, advancing to the position of supervisor, spending his time on classified contracts dealing with the B-52 strategic bomber and satellite communications systems.
As the babies started coming along Bill and Jean moved to the suburbs to a house on Maple Avenue in Maplewood. It was a happy environment for Bill Jr., Bob, Mike and Barbara to grow up in. The house stood at the end of a dead end with woods behind them, and a gold course beyond the woods. Their neighbors were friendly, providing plenty of playmates and games of wiffle ball and street ball to play. A neighbor had a barn on their property that providing the setting for haunted houses as well as neighborhood plays to be staged. Jean opened a dress shop in town, where Barbara enjoyed going to after school.
When the boys entered the cub scouts, Bill offered his services, and, natural leader that he was in all situations, he was soon serving as the cub scout master of the entire Pack.
Bill rooted for the Yankees, idolizing Joe DiMaggio, and he would take his sons to games in the Bronx each summer.
Friends of Bill’s from work would drop by for fierce games of horse shoes. Driven by their intensely competitive spirit these off-duty engineers would pull out their micrometers in order to precisely measure exactly who had in fact gotten his shoe closest to the rod.
In the summertime, the family would get loaded into an old Cadillac for long drives down to Mississippi to visit Jean’s family, or for shorter trips to the Jersey shore to visit Bill’s older brother Mike, where happy memories were created of times spent crabbing together or walking the boardwalk. Bill’s children remember fondly the goofy sight of their father wearing his black shoes and black socks down to the beach.
Their home in Maplewood was always the preferred place for the four children’s friends to come to and hang out. And times it served as a refuge from the storms of life for strays who need a place of welcome.
Bill Jr. remembers one time when he as a young teenager he and some buddies were walking home and when they were suddenly accosted by some young thugs with knives looking to separate them from their money. Bill managed to get free and run home to tell his father what was happening, whereupon his father picked up a baseball bat and went running down the street to send the young toughs running for their lives.
Bill Jr. also remembers later when he became a rock guitarist and would practice hours on end in the basement with his rock band friends, how patient his father was, and his willingness to transport them to and from their various gigs they managed to get.
Bill made it clear, however, that he was in charge. “This is not a democracy,” Bill stated definitively at the dinner table when the strife of the sixties spilled over into dinner conversation. “This is a dictatorship, and I’m in charge.”
But he was, for the most part, a benevolent dictator of his home, with the best interests of his loved ones at heart. And if you were fortunate enough to have Bill invite you into his junta and into his heart, you remained in his heart forever. He would very likely bust your chops, but he would always be there on your side, no matter what.
In Bill’s mind there was no problem he couldn’t fix in the lives of those he loved, and in those rare instances in which the problems being dealt with weren’t the sort that any human being, no matter how determined, could fix, well, Bill would take it pretty hard.
When his little brother Dominic came down with lung cancer at the young age of 42, Bill brought him in to his home to live, where Jean nursed him over the last six months of his life. Bill couldn’t fix his little brother’s lung cancer, and his death broke his heart. From that the day forward, Bill never smoked another cigarette, a testament to the strength of his will.
His daughter-in-law Janey remembers the first time she met Bill when she and Bill Jr. were first dating. Bill and Jean had moved to Parsippany, establishing a new home base for the family, where Bill Jr. and his son Zechariah had come to live. When she pulled her car into the driveway, Bill came out of the garage, eyeing the car, grunting. He circled the car slowly, and then launched into his son: “You let her drive on these bald tires??!!”
Bill loved fiercely, but he showed his love with actions far more than with words. But if you were loved by Bill, you knew. If you told him you loved him, a grunt and a sniff, “same here”, was about all you could expect in reply. But you knew.
When his wife complained that she wouldn’t mind hearing Bill declare straight out “I love you” from time to time, his response was to say in so many words that he had spoken of his love for her when they first got married, and “nothing’s changed.” And in his world view, this made sense. Once he had made a decision to love somebody — to let them into his heart — there was no turning back — his love was unquestioned and unconditional. In his mind he didn’t need to keep talking about it, because it was unthinkable to him that he might actually ever give up on some one.
Bill was the lynch pin of the family – the rock whose mere presence brought calm and reassurance in unsettling times.
When Bill’s beloved wife Jean got sick, he would have moved heaven and earth if he could to take away her pain and make her well, but here, too, he was helpless, and again it broke his heart when she died 25 years ago.
Bill carried on as best he could after her death, continuing to be the guy every body looked to for guidance at his work place. He found great pleasure in coming to the various annual gatherings of the extended family. He enjoyed his bowling and golf outings. A special bond was forged with his son Mike at this point around their shared passion for getting out on the golf course.
When at the age of 68 Bill decided he was finally ready to retire, an incredible 1100 people showed up to his retirement party to wish him well and to express their gratitude for what he had meant to them. Since his family hadn’t witnessed directly his work life, it moved them deeply to hear so many different people speak with such sincerity regarding the difference their dad had made in their careers and in their lives.
Shortly after retiring, Bill went with his son Mike to Pebble Beach, one of many beautiful golf courses they would share together over the years.
He carried a 207 bowling average into his late 70s, enjoying the company of his buddies at the bowling alley. He loved his golf outings with old work buddies, and the three holes-in-one he sank.
For the past twenty-two years I was fortunate to have Bill as my next door neighbor. When my lawn mower or my car wouldn’t start, Bill would come over and fix the problem. He was a good neighbor.
It was a tough adjustment for Bill to make in these last few years of his life when the strokes progressively robbed him of his mobility and handicapped his speech. He was the one who enjoyed getting out and playing the game – the strong one whose attention was focused on fixing the problems of the people he loved. Now, however, he was rendered incapable of doing much at all.
As once before God had brought from afar a great blessing into Bill’s life when he made the acquaintance of a young southern bell, so once more God reached out to find someone with distant roots to provide the love and companionship he needed. Ese Dente, a Ghanian angel from heaven came to the house to care for Bill.
It would have broken Bill’s spirit if he’d been forced to leave his home and enter a sterile institution some where. Over the course of five and a half years Ese’s tender, gentle care made it possible for him to stay in the place that was home for him. Ese became his best friend.
With their quite different backgrounds, as Ese and Bill got to know one another, they would often laugh together. When he noticed that Ese wasn’t eating much, slow to get used to American food, Bill would say to her, “Eat! Eat!” She would protest, “I’m full.” And he would declare, “Baloney!!” — a curious expression for Ese. When it came time for them to sit down to a meal together, he’d say, “Now you eat, and don’t give me any baloney!!”
After a time, Ese began giving it back to Bill. “Don’t give me any baloney,” she’d say, when he wasn’t being fully cooperative.
As Bill would overhear Ese talking on the phone to her children back in Ghana, Bill began to open his heart to them as well. He encouraged Ese to bring young Joe over, not just for a visit, but to live in his house as a grandson. It gave Bill great pleasure in the last year and a half of his life to have the enthusiasm of a boy in his home again. He enjoyed hearing the sounds of Joe and his young friends playing together in the yard and in the house.
Bill was greatly blessed by Ese, and she in turn was blessed mightily by Bill as well. She declared that she learned patience from this man who bore his sufferings so nobly. As Bill’s capacity to speak words diminished, she valued the quality of silence they shared together. She came to appreciate what it means to declare that “silence is golden.”
In the end, the Apostle Paul declared, love is the one thing that “never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:8) We were created by God in order to love. During his eighty-eight years upon this earth, Bill has loved well, and he departed from this world knowing that he was loved as well. “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” (1Corinthians 13:12a) In death, Bill has been perfected in love, and his love for you continues without any distortion. One day you will see him again; until that day, honor is life by seeking to express the same quality of love in your life — the kindness, loyalty, and determination – that you have witnessed in Bill’s blessed time on this earth.