Reflections on Tony Pignatello
When Steve Heinzerling reached out for stories about Tony, the question was not “do I have one?”, but rather which one to tell.
When I was a new member of Sebago I was meeting many new people. Who could keep track? Forget about last names and functions – I was trying to match names and faces. Having volunteered to work the grill for City of Water Day, I was reporting for work at Sebago and happened to see Tony – a familiar face. I explained to Tony that I was looking for “a” Fran Pignatello, and asked if he knew her. With a smile as wide as the Hudson River he said, “Come on, I might be able to recognize her”. He introduced me to Fran. No one died of food poisoning that City of Water Day. It was some time after that I learned that Fran and Tony were married for over 40 years 🙂
There is a book out called “Old School”. I paraphrase: “Character” is an “Old School” word. At the end of the day, character is the only thing we really have. People who have character are an inspiration. They are admired. By this definition, Tony was indeed “Old School”.
When I think of Tony, it’s always like this: arms outstretched in greeting, a friendly smile, and two boxes of wine – one red and one white – on the picnic table. Tony made me (and so many others) feel welcome whenever and wherever I saw him… each and every time. What a rare gift he had. There may be better men in the world, but I’ve never met one.
To me, Tony was the man who always had a twinkle in his eyes, like he knew of the good time we were all about to have. I will remember him as the warmest man – a smart, safe paddler who knew people always come first and had a warm laugh and a hand to lend. I miss him.
I will always remember Tony as the person who wanted everyone to go on a paddle, but more important come back, have some box wine, something to eat and just sit on the lawn. We should plant a large shade tree in his honor.
“Is it kosher?”
The other from one of my first evening paddles: we were crossing the channel. I was working hard to keep up and feeling a bit nervous about paddling in the dark. I asked that people not get too far ahead. Tony asked why, to which I explained, “in case I capsize, I want someone to know”. Tony’s response was “when we don’t hear you talking we’ll know something happened”.
Thanks, Tony. And yes, it’s kosher.
I was packing to move from Duluth, Minnesota to Brooklyn when the phone rang. On the other end of the line was the Commodore of the Sebago Canoe Club. What? Someone was welcoming me to Brooklyn and to Sebago and assured me that there would be space for my canoe when I arrived! It was a warm and welcoming voice with an embracing personality. When I ended a rather long drive at the Sebago parking lot to drop off my canoe, Tony stepped out of a kayak planning meeting to greet me personally and help stash the canoe. That thoughtful phone call from Tony and the welcoming warmth and assurance of his greeting when I arrived let me know that I had truly found a new home and had one friend in this new, huge and intimidating city.
One of my proudest moments was made possible by Tony. Tony was one of two instructors for a basic kayak safety course, which sounds simple enough but I was actually quite nervous about hanging out upside down under my kayak for the first time in Jamaica Bay. Tony’s calm, reassuring manner helped me through it. I trusted him immediately. And now adventures on the water are much more fun.
Thank you, Tony (and Walter)!
From the first time we met, Tony always extended a warm welcome and a sincere “see you next time.” I attributed his fellowship to a genuine sense that he appreciated and was confident that others enjoyed his company. At all times Tony spoke candidly and I admired his strength of character.
One thing I always liked about Tony was that he would call his wife his bride – such a nice thing and a reflection I’m sure of their love. Also, I remember how he was always so enthusiastic and friendly and always had time to listen.
I had a friend who was selling a sport canoe. I had another friend who was an avid bird watcher who did some canoeing, and so I arranged the sale of the boat. Neither friend is a Sebago member. The second friend did not use or take care of the boat; he stored it on its side, and the gunwales on that side of the boat rotted. When I told him the gunwales could be replaced, he gave it to me. I was in the middle of trying to replace the gunwales, and having a difficult time, when Tony generously helped me replace them, maintaining my cheer even through the inevitable errors that the two of us made because of our lack of experience. Also, if Tony had not stepped up to pay for freezer storage for the Sebago Archives now housed at Brooklyn College which had been soaked in Hurricane Sandy, these papers would have been lost forever. His Sebago friendships meant much to him, as he often told me.
After I got my Hullavator car kayak rack, Tony and I created a fun joke about always Hullavating together and that we would never Hullavate with anyone else. He will always be my special Hullavating partner!
I will always remember how witty and gracious Tony was. One day when he was in the hospital and clearly not feeling well, he answered my phone call, saying to his doctor: “I am getting a phone call from a beautiful woman!”
Here’s what he wrote on FB under Bonnie’s picture from the 2012 trip to Orient Point.
“The two Italians in the picture are the only ones not talking with their hands. How could that be!” (see attached pic).
Then there was the time I mistakenly tagged Tony on a FB picture of Minh Nguyen, and Tony commented “I seem be losing weight!”.
I think it was also on the 2012 trip to Orient Point that the “Gracie” became a unit of measurement. Here’s the story as I remember it: I am known for moderation, with food and especially drink, so when someone would offer to pour me some boxed wine, I’d hold up two fingers to say “sure, but not too much”. Towards the end of one evening someone offered Tony a shot of something. Without missing a beat and with one of his sly smiles, he said, “I’ll have a Gracie”. Here’s to you Tony!
Six or seven years seems like blink of the eye when one is in the fourth quarter of their life. In that short time Tony and I developed a friendship that felt like it was lifelong. We both grew up on the Lower East Side in Italian American families but didn’t meet until 60 years later at Sebago. His family came from a small village outside Palermo, only 70 kilometers from my family’s village. I used to think that our common background made it easy for us to become close friends, but that is not the case. It was all Tony. He was a man bigger than life with a ready smile and an open heart for everyone. He embraced life and touched everyone he came to know. He had a passion for living life to the fullest, for lifelong learning, for meaningful friendships, and for acting in a truly compassionate way toward everyone. I could fill a book with stories of our brief friendship but I’ll just share the story of our final trip before illness overtook him.
Last October, Tony, Fran, Pam and I rented a cabin in the AMC Harriman camp. It was Tony’s idea and of course he had made all the arrangements. His back was bothering him, but he didn’t complain; just a grimace every once and a while. We spent a couple of lovely sunny days hiking, paddling, eating and laughing. The woods were beautiful, the lake was beautiful, life was beautiful. On our way home we started making plans to return in the spring. We would invite more friends and share this wonderful place with others. That was six months ago. Just dreams and memories now. Dreams and memories.
A few years back, a group of us from Sebago went for a midwinter paddle at Jones Beach inlet. We went for a glimpse of the seals that were wintering over there. Following the paddle we moved on to Bigelow’s in Long Beach for chowder and fried clams. Tom Anderson and I were the first to arrive and grabbed two seats at the end of the counter. Every other seat was taken but one. Tony was the next to arrive and I waved him over. I told him to take the seat because it won’t be empty for long. He told me “no thanks”, but he’d work on getting seats for ten or 12 others that were on their way. I thought this an impossible task. The restaurant has no more than two dozen seats around a U-shaped counter, and that’s it. But Tony was sure of himself. He spoke to a man behind the counter and stood quietly by the door with his arms folded. Magically, by the time the rest of the group arrived there was a group of seats open and available for the whole group to sit together. This was a demonstration of Tony’s natural leadership abilities and his priority in always looking out for the group first.
When I got to know Tony, I realized that behind the smile was a man who loved life and who knew that sharing good times together is what it was all about. There will be many times to come when we’ll think of him as we’re doing just that.
Photos, including one particular Jones Beach picnic table sequence that I remember well- shown in the group below. You should be able to click through for the story. (Captions tell what happened; I loved it). There is a great picture of him holding court at Bigelow’s a little later on in the album.
I’m not a member of SCC. I attend of lot of your events (we have common friends), so I’m there when you’re there or hosting.
I took to you all and befriended many. And, difficult to ignore his presence, I ran into and spoke with Tony frequently. He was good: no matter how many times we talked, it’d only hit me days later that he made it so our conversations revolved around me, and seldom himself.
It came to a point that I attended so many events that I sensed–in many of you and including Tony–a belief that I was a member. Whenever the issue came up as to my status, I’d deflect and wouldn’t do much to correct your (wrong) assumptions. When speaking to one or two of you at a time, it wasn’t so hard to do, so that at some point in time, a good amount of you thought I was indeed part of the club. I have to admit, I reveled in being a member without in fact being a member.
At one SCC event, while listening to those conversations that seemed to span universes and involve the whole world–that fantastical chatter which is part of Sebago’s gatherings and genetics–I heard Tony’s voice down the table some. He was remarking to someone how wonderful it was that SCC is recruiting and getting younger volunteers. And then he mentioned me by name.
And then, what I feared could and would eventually happen, happened. Someone hollered “He isn’t a Sebago member!”
I felt so guilty and naked at that moment. It wasn’t like I outright lied to him or anyone else, but I knew that I didn’t correct what I knew some wrongly believed. In truth, I hadn’t been forthright. At that moment, I felt I deserved what comments were about to be lobbed toward and about me. If I could’ve I would’ve slunk into the bay and disappeared. And Tony? He couldn’t even meet my eyes and look at me.
He looked at the rest of you. Sternly. And announced, in that bellowing voice, “Doesn’t matter–until he becomes a member, he’s an honorary member.”
A statement like that does more than lift a spirit, it can change a person—the generosity, the kindness, the defense and protection of a person who doesn’t particularly deserve it.
Tony is a gem and his force is a gem. I didn’t know him as fondly as you, but I’m happy I crossed his path.
I’m too new to your crowd to understand whether it was him rubbing off on the club or the club rubbing off on him. I do know that there’s an energy here at SCC that has forged a sort of force, that I feel every time I visit. It’s the same feeling I felt around him.
As a kid growing up here, every now and then while my uncle or dad was circling blocks trying to find an entrance to the Belt, I recall passing Sebago’s gates, wondering what was behind them. Had I known it was a place where a person like Tony and the rest of you resided.