Thursday, May 15, 2008

For Pop Pop

A year ago today, my grandfather Tony Verzella passed away. The book is dedicated to him, and he had an unbelievable impact on the person I am today.

Below is the eulogy I gave at his funeral. It is the most important and most difficult thing I've ever written. I'm going to try not to be sad today, and celebrate the life he lived.


There’s a lot of words I could use to describe Anthony Verzella. As I prepared this eulogy, I asked for suggestions, and one of the most common words suggested was “gigantic.” When I was a kid, I just thought he was a giant. At 6 foot two, he was tall and solid, built like an oak tree. People have always told me that he had the biggest hands of anyone they’d ever met. They looked like roots – strong, well grounded and with a long history.

Tony, as most people called him, was the son of Italian immigrants. His father worked in the steel mills in western Pennsylvania, and Tony did, too. But after taking shop classes in high school, knew that he wasn’t going to follow in his father’s footsteps. He lied about his age to enlist in the military, and served for the Navy in the Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign. While aboard the USS St. Louis, his ship was attacked twice, once by kamakazi. He was awarded a purple heart and still has shrapnel lodged in his body. When he left for Japan, he also left a girlfriend back home. They went to the same high school, and he sat in front of her in class. While he was overseas, he wrote Elizabeth Vohar a letter, asking her if she would be his wife. She said yes – for 62 years.

After Tony returned to the United States and worked for the Navy in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the young family moved to New Jersey, first to Collingswood and then Bellmawr, where he would live for the rest of his life. His first job was as a cabinet maker, and he built television sets. After his son Tony was born, he looked for better paying work, and he found it as a carpenter with L.F. Driscoll Co., where he worked for over 30 years. In his time as carpenter, foreman and, as most of you know, superintendent, he helped shape the Philadelphia we know today – Rittenhouse Hotel, Doubletree Hotel, PennWalt and Liberty One are just a few Tony Verzella jobs. He also built his share of churches and schools, and once threw a priest off the jobsite because he was getting in the way. Years later, that priest, who was by that time Bishop George Guilfoyle, confirmed my brother. Of course he remembered Tony – fondly – as the carpenter with big hands.

Tony was also a father, grandfather and great grandfather. Eight children, twenty-five grandchildren and one great grandchild have all been blessed to be a part of his family. He was already retired by the time I was able to start remembering him, and I’ve keep him in my mind as a strong and playful pop pop. He loved to polka and jitterbug, and kept whimsical, mechanical toys in his basement, supposedly bought for the grandkids, but I think he enjoyed them while we weren’t around. He taught me how to play pool, catch lightening bugs, crack walnuts, and clean a crab. He taught us all about honor, respect, the importance of family, why you should always do the job right the first time, and how to kill ’em with kindness. He was tough, but always fair, and I think that’s the right way to be.

After he retired, he kept working, building in his workshop that always smelled of sawdust and cigars, even after grandmom made him quit. As he grew older, he invented or altered the mechanisms around him so that he could keep working. When his knees made it difficult for him to rake the yard, he made his lawn tractor into a leaf blower so that he could corral the leaves into one pile for easy collection. When he wasn’t able to move heavy items to and from the second floor of his garage, he created a leverage system from a boat winch, electric motor and cables. He set the speed to slow so that he could hook up something upstairs, turn on the motor, and he’d be able to walk downstairs and be waiting for the item before it hit the ground. At 81, he put an addition on that garage. Solo. When his kids said they worried he’d fall off the ladder, he showed them that he’d already chained himself to it.

And in the last years of his life, after a series of medical set backs, and as he worked through physical therapy in order to walk again and dance at his granddaughter’s wedding, he orchestrated the creation and construction of a set of stairs that he could use for his rehabilitation exercises. He wasn’t able to build them himself, but he was, until the end, still a superintendent.

On Easter Sunday, Tony held his great grandchild, Breanna, for the first and last time. They were both delighted, and, soon after that lovely afternoon, Tony started his journey to back to God, and to his parents, his siblings, and his son. If you are looking down on us right now, pop pop, I want you to know that you’ve lead a good life. It wasn’t always an easy life, but it was a good one. Now you and Timmy go build something, and, as always, I know it will be beautiful.

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1 comment:

Joy Nash said...

That's a wonderful tribute to your grandfather, Jen. Thanks for posting it.