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Folks with a gift for giving

As I write, it seems much too early to think about Christmas. Having just returned from Sinsinawa Mound in Wisconsin, founded by Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP, the colors of autumn surrounding the “home of the young eagle” combined with the anticipation of news from Rome about his Beatification are both breathtaking. I may have missed taking part in the Columbus Day Parade, but walking on the hallowed Mound grounds, holding Fr. Samuel’s penance chain in my unworthy hands, is a celebration of Italian heritage all by itself.

Praying with the chain, I boldly asked for miracles for friends and relatives; at the same time, I am reminded in these days before Christmas that I hardly resemble that little kid who folded the corners of practically every other page in the Sears Wish Book. My adult wish list has become more pathetic with each passing year as there really isn’t much that I want. I may not be rich but I am blessed in many ways and those really are the greatest gifts of all.

Every day, every month, as I travel the western suburbs gathering news for Neighbors Magazine, I am in awe of all the people and stories that surround us — some are outstanding stories of generosity or perseverance; some just stand out by the example of their lives, their compassion, their legacy of decency and family in a world buckling under the burden of bad news and tragedies. There’s not much any of us can do about the situation in Yemen or Libya but I am reminded that there is more that I can do here every time I drive down St. Charles Road in Bellwood/Berkeley or Des Plaines Avenue in North Riverside or Wolf Road in Northlake.

We are changed by neighbors like Joe Gentile, “Baron of Barrington” because he was a car salesman extraordinaire and hometown radio station patriot and he provided a platform for incredible local talent like John DeVita, Bill Jaconetti, Vittorio Giustino, Tony Arredia, Joe Johnson and many others to reach tens of thousands of listeners via WJJG AM-1530. An outspoken Joe Gentile might have gotten the dial tone when calling into another radio station but when he purchased Elmhurst’s WKDC-AM he not only gave the world a piece of his mind but he gave countless charities and causes a shot in the arm. From his office/studio located in Berkeley, Joe made listeners cringe and he also made things happen — spotlighting his alma maters St. Ignatius College Prep, University of Notre Dame and his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II. His was a “red, white and blue” radio station and I was proud to be on the air with him several times promoting local businesses, local traditions and local heroes. God bless Joe Gentile, born with nothing, worked for everything and proud to be an American more than anything else.

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Minutes away from Villa Gentile, I find constant inspiration from Jack at Gioacchino’s Ristorante, who would rather exhaust himself making his own bread and sausage, growing his own acre of herbs and vegetables than have it any other way. His work ethic amazes me. Like Gentile, Jack never had a silver spoon or an easy political job. Both men exude decency and perseverance, never accepting welfare or an easy pension. Another inspiration is just down the road from here, behind the counter at Lezza Spumoni & Desserts. Ed Lezza, Sr. and his family have held down the fort–and the dream–of his grandfather, Salvatore, and father, Victor, with an integrity rarely found in corporate America today. Innovative ideas for new products married traditional pastries and desserts that are nearly obsolete are a match made in heaven. A rare four generations of charitable and support and a legacy of familial dedication are a needle in this world’s haystack but a veritable blessing in our suburban lives.

To the north and south of these, a few others come to mind. Many area senior citizens were just teens and tweens when they were recruited by their elders to work spaghetti dinners and fundraisers for the Rev. Armando Pierini, C.S., to support his dream of founding a home for the elderly. While famous entertainers did their part, it was the average person who worked in booths, sold the tickets and served at events that made Villa Scalabrini possible. This year, the landmark at 480 N. Wolf Road in Northlake marks its 60th year. Fr. Pierini’s legacy of undertaking formidable tasks is an integral part of our community, including the Villa, Fra Noi and the Italian radio program L’Ora Cattolica. A small, unpretentious man on a mission — how many of us know first-hand the refuge and comfort of “the Villa” and the blessing it has been in our lives and the lives of those we love?

And when it comes to leaving an impression on tens of thousands of people, we need only look to Westchester and Melrose Park as this year the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo Provincial Guild honored Man and Woman of the Year John and Mary Scalera and presented the Frank A. Mungo In Memoriam Award to Vincent Laraia. All honorees synonymous with incredible food and huge, unforgettable events, few have done more to put St. Joseph Tables on the map and their hearts and souls on the line than Mary and John Scalera, behind the scenes boiling water and serving up a centuries-old tradition, inspiring people from all walks of life to look to the earthly father of Jesus and the patron saint of working people.

What Mary and John did for the month of March, Vince Laraia did for Labor Day weekend. Just a regular guy, your average neighbor full of interesting ideas, Vince and a small committee brainstormed the first Taste of Melrose Park back in 1981. The Labor Day weekend festival that started with some local restaurants lined up on 25th Avenue like a village block party became a statewide blockbuster recognized as the second best Taste in Illinois behind the Taste of Chicago. What a gift, not just for patrons seeking an affordable and family-oriented event, but the Taste introduced local talent, local cooks and local non-profits to a venue that changed their lives and uplifted an entire community.

Yes, I really do think of these people and many others, like my mailman who has walked the same route for more than three decades, as gifts. Just like the Gift of the Magi has nothing to do with Neiman Marcus, these ordinary people and their extraordinary lives are gifts to us, reminders that a plummeting Dow Jones, political corruption, the national debt and the chaos all around us are hardly as memorable a message as the little drummer boy.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in the classic “The Little Prince”: “Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

About Tina Valentino