By Joe Sarno
Few are left who remember Joe, but those that are still around who knew him will never forget him. He was a giant of a man, both physically and intellectually. He was a willing and most capable teacher of math, Latin, Greek, history, religion, opera and current events and everything else, it seemed. He had a considerable personal library. Joe was an iconic figure in the North End particularly in his area, respected for his knowledge and loved for his heart and generosity.
He had a great sense of humor and could teach and correct you in the most amiable way. I benefited tremendously from him. I turned to Joe dozens of times for help with several of those subjects and became a much better student and listener.
He was born the son of Italian immigrants, Joe senior (I assume he was Giuseppe) and Nancy Lemmo in the late 1920s. He lived his entire life at 145 Endicott Street across from St. Mary’s Church in the North End of Boston. He graduated from St. Mary’s School and Boston College High School. As best I can recollect he attended Boston University for a year or two. His father was a fruit peddler and sold watermelons on a horse and wagon on our beloved streets. I can still hear his father’s shouts of “Watermelo, Watermelo.” Joe Jr. as a teenager assisted him and sat at the rear of the wagon. One hot summer afternoon he fell off the rear of the wagon and as he lay on the ground he was taunted by some neighborhood kids because of his size. After that incident he became a recluse for the most part because of that. I cannot remember him further away from his doorstep than Tony the Butcher’s at 156 Endicott, Maria Libra’s Salumeria at 159 Endicott , DeLeo’s Drug Store at 151 Endicott owned and operated by a wonderful woman named Mrs. Morriss, or Rossi’s Florist shop just a few doors down in the opposite direction. The entrances to St. Mary’s Church were at the 4th corner of Endicott and Thatcher Streets. Actually, these were the major pit stops for the locals in that neck of the woods of the North End.
I can remember vividly sitting at a small table in Deleo’s drug store with Phil, Richie and Fudgy when we were 15 or 16 years old. Joe was debating with Father Bouvier, a Jesuit assigned to St Mary’s just across the street. Joe was taking the position of Voltaire and Father Bouvier took the position of the Catholic Church regarding certain church doctrines. After intense discussion by these two great intellects for about 15 or 20 minutes they decided to swap their positions on the issue and debated for about another 20 minutes. Needless to say, we were awestruck.
St. Mary’s ran the full length of a block on Endicott Street from Cooper Street to Thatcher Street. It was an imposing and magnificent structure with two complete churches in the upper and lower level. On a warm summer day the church had all of its windows fully open in the upper church. As an altar boy serving the 9:00 a.m. Sunday mass, often times l could hear Joe belting out arias from a side window of his apartment in Douglas Court. I remember two of the operas were “I Am the Captain of the Pinafore etc. etc.” from the opera H.M.S Pinafore and “La Donna e Mobile” from Rigoletto. As it turned out, there were complaints from the church. He was interfering with the church’s organist (some felt he was actually drowning out the hymns). Yes, Joe was an avid opera buff with a powerful operatic voice, but he had to reschedule his singing times.
In the late 50s I entered a contest with the Boston Herald or maybe it was the Record American. Each day they posted a photo of a celebrity and a clue and you had to identify each of them. The early photos were very easy to recognize and of course as the contest approached the 96th and final photo, they became difficult, partially obscured and to me impossible to identify. I would run to Joe and he would say, “It’s Otani, he’s a Japanese shipbuilder” or “This is Ernst Lubitsch, a film director.”
I won $75. More than a week’s pay for many families at the time. I offered Joe half. He refused to take any of it.
On a typical summer afternoon Joe would be sitting on his doorstep listening to the radio. One of his favorite programs was “Stump the Staff.” People would submit historical, geographical, political or current event questions to the radio staff of five experts. If you stumped the staff, the station would send you a 5-pound Colonial ham in the can. One afternoon after completing an errand for him, I went up to his apartment to bring him whatever he had me buy and was astonished to see that he had about 30 of these hams. He gave me one and I ran home to give it to my mother. She was delighted. The only question he posed to them that I can remember was who preceded Haile Selassie as ruler of Ethiopia. Joe used many pseudonyms and eventually the radio station barred him.
Joe earned some of his living by creating crossword puzzles. Some were published in the New York Times. Again here he used pseudonyms. One of his favorites and mine was Nancy Lemmo.
Next to his doorstep was Danno’s Tailor shop. The door was always open in the summer and the radio was usually broadcasting a Red Sox game. A typical guy passing by after work would ask “How’d the Sox do?” Danno or Joe would respond “They won 6 to 1. Williams went 2 for 3.”
Joe had another gift. He could bestow a nickname. One summer day my late friend Lenny was standing with me in front of Tony the Butcher’s and Joe came by. Joe put on a serious look and studied Lenny’s face. “You have dark skin and very soft facial features” and after a very long pause said, “My god you could be taken for the next Dalai Lama.” It immediately stuck. We didn’t know what on earth who or what was a Dalai Lama.
When St. Mary’s school announced its closing in the early 70s, like many others, I fled to the suburbs for the sake of my children’s education. I had been busy raising my family and hadn’t seen Joe for several years.
I ran into Joe coming down Endicott near Cooper far from usual range. He had lost a lot of weight and looked great. We chatted quite some time. We parted. I smiled. Joe had gotten his life back.