Pete Mastrangelo: a big footprint


Friday, March 02, 2012


Teddy was wrong when he told me ten years ago at my mother’s funeral that we were the last two of the Sarti clan.

I was wrong for thinking when Ted died in 2010 that I was the last.

But now I am truly the last of the clan now that Uncle Pete (Big Pete) is gone.

He died Monday of complications from cancer – a cancer that should have killed him in the late 1990s, when doctors predicted he had only a few months to live.

He fooled them, he lived another dozen years.

Big Pete wasn’t really a Sarti. But he married so early into the clan he might as well have been the sixth son my grandfather never had, marrying Alice who was special to all of us.

His house became a center of family social activities, especially after my grandfather passed away in 1966. But he had already become deeply enmeshed in family functions from when he married Alice in 1958 when my grandfather’s house was the center of the Sarti world.

Big Pete was part of that 1950s vision of a bright new modern world and seemed to get his fingers around the bottom rung of success in a way none of the others of my family ever could, someone who lived out the full potential the post war America offered.

A first generation Italian immigrant, Pet came to America as an infant as his family settled into the Bronx. After meeting and marrying Alice, he settled into the second floor apartment of a two-family house off Valley Road in Clifton, where Alice gave birth to Little Peter and John, the first of their four children.

By the time Alice was ready to deliver their third child – Lisa – Peter was successful enough to afford their own house in Fairfield, where they and most of their relations from the Bronx moved, kids from a host of families charging across otherwise peaceful streets carrying trays of food.

I didn’t know until last night that Big Pete met my aunt, Alice at Curtis Wright in Lodi, where both of them worked at the time. He was working for a department that was about to be eliminated, while she worked as secretary to the boss.

Little Peter at the wake laughed about the meeting, saying that the boss did not want to upset Alice, so instead of laying Big Pete off as originally planned, the boss offered Pete a position in another department where he would work with computers.
The boss didn’t want to hurt Alice by firing her boyfriend, Little Peter said.

The transfer put Big Pete on the road to success.

Like Michael Bloomberg, Peter would be learning to work with computers in the mid-1950s decades before computer technology became common item, and he would transfer those skills to Wall Street where he would rise in status to executive vice president of Kidder Peabody & Co. Inc. – though unlike Bloomberg, Pete never lost touch with his humanity or his dedication to family.

I once compared Pete and Alice to the characters in the Dick Van Dyke Show, living in a world that was then an exact picture of the American Dream.

Last night at the funeral home with the hundreds of people coming into to pay tribute to Big Pete, I was reminded of Alice’s funeral and the line of cards that stretched behind the hearse as it made its way from the Fairfield church to the Paterson grave yard – today, I saw a repeat of that, a stunning ride that had police cars holding up traffic as if we were part of a presidential motorcade.

Little Pete at the wake said his father had left “a big footprint,” a phrase he would use again today at the church.

He said his father had had numerous brushes with death over his 80-year life sp, staring back when as a very young boy, he fell off a hay wagon he wasn’t supposed to be on, and did not tell anyone until an infection settled into his ear and took him years to recover.

Raised in the Bronx, Big Pete visited the zoon and played in the neighborhood with his kin, a scene duplicated in the next generation when the family moved to Fairfield.

“It was as if our family had taken over Fairfield,” Little Pete said.

Once successful, Big Pete purchased a shore house down in Long Branch where the family routinely spent their summers.

Big Pete’s granddaughter said he loved listening to Frank Sinatra and  Tony Bennett, smoking cigars and sitting on the beach looking out at the sat.

But he also rode a bicycle and had a nasty habit of falling off. One time, he ran into a car door that was flung open in front of him. Little Pete got a call from Big Pete who said, “We got a problem,” a standard phase for when one of his schemes when haywire.

His granddaughter said Big Pete was completely honest, and recalled her efforts to learn how to cook. She said she liked his honesty because when he gave praise he really meant it.

One of the elderly priests at the funeral recalled the day Big Pete told him he was leaving the seminary – one of those life decisions that led eventually to his marrying my aunt, a kind of marriage that seems as mythical to me as a tale from King Arthur’s Court.

Little Peter said a lot of dogs passed through Big Pete’s life, all of them with the same name, “King.”

Another priest, who became a close friend of Big Pete’s , recalled when Big Pete and the kids took him into their home. This was after Big Pete’s mistaken second marriage, when his four kids from Alice, moved out and into a house on Hollywood Avenue, followed by Big Pete a short time later.

I briefly visited them at that house, hearing their tale of woe, heard that the priest was living there, but never met him.

The priest, however, recalled Pete’s rituals, putting on the coffee in the morning, getting the kids ready for school, before making his way to Jersey City and the search for a parking spot.

His granddaughter recalled a regular routine called “bagels and buns” and the trip to the store during which Big Pete sat one of them in his lap and let them steer. When they passed a police car, she was sure they would get pulled over, but Big Pete only laughed and said, “Don’t worry about it.”

Big Pet worried about very little, even though other people might have seen the pain his life – the loss of Alice in 1975, the pain he suffered from cancer. But he always helped people where he could, and according to Little Peter, left a foot print as big as his name.

The elderly priest remembered when he took his sister to Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for treatment and while there heard Big Pete’s name called out, finding a frail version of the Pete he’d known.

“Six months ago, my sister died,” the priest said. “Now Pete is gone.”

But Little Peter said Pete’s legacy was in the people he left behind, his family and friends. He recalled Big Pete taking him to the office from time to time, but only realized later how the people in the office were like a second family to him, some of whom had come to the wake or the funeral.

Little Pete also recalled his father’s legendary pocket games with men from the neighborhood full of cigar smoke and healthy conversations. Now Little Pete continued those poker games with the sons of some of the same men his father had played with.

Big Pete’s granddaughter choked up before she could finish her tribute, which in that emotional moment was a tribute bigger than words, big enough even for Big Pete.

As I drove behind the hearse along the highway, as the police made way for us to pull into the cemetery where Big Pete would be reunited with Alice, the love of his life, I realized that nearly everybody who had ever helped me as a young boy were living in that same grave stone resort, people of the Sarti clan that had stepped up to the plate to help fill the space left by my lack of father, each taking their turn with me, each become a father for me, and in that role, Big Pete certainly played his part, and though I didn’t see him often, I had to see him at the last, to say good bye to a man whose life was bigger than life, and yet at the same time, never out of touch with the ordinary, small things having great meaning, his footprint big indeed, especially in my heart.


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