Sunday, February 11, 2007

Biography Podcast 0020: Repost - Domenico Zannini

Hello, and thanks for joining us here in the Biography Podcast. This special episode is dedicated to a Rhode Islander of some merit, Domenico Zannini. I hope you enjoy his story.

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Biography Transcript
Domenico Zannini was born the third and youngest child of two Italian immigrant parents, Luigi Zannini and ??? Nicoletti, on February 11, 1917 in Providence, Rhode Island. Dom or Dominic as he was called by many, did not have much money - or much luck early in his life. Besides being born youngest in his family, Dom grew up in the roaring 20s in Providence, then a stronghold of the Irish who had come over before the Italians. Being Italian in Irish Providence was no easy task as it made it difficult for Luigi to get work, and it made it difficult for Dom - or as he was to become known to his closest friends "Pee Wee" - and his older brother and sister Al and Betty to get by on the streets. And thus was born the fighter. And while it was tough, it prepared young Domenico for what was to come.

From all accounts, Dom was a gregarious and fun loving child, and he was always into some mischief. But soon much of Dom's fun and his innocence would be stripped away. While Dom was still young, Luigi passed away leaving his mother, sister and brother to fend for themselves. Not one to quit, Dom's mother remarried, and again Domenico had a male father figure - but then, just as the country was entering the great depression tragedy again struck when Dom's mother was suddenly taken away from him leaving him to live with his step father and his new wife. Shortly thereafter, Dom's sister Betty - they oldest of the Zannini's, was married and she took in both Dom and his older brother Al.

There aren't many accounts of depression era Providence in the Zannini family from Dom's side other than it was a struggle. Still, Domenico lived and laughed. He loved music and as a child sang in at least one Parrish choir. Educationally, he pushed on and even went to the 10th grade in high school before needing to leave and get a job to help support the family. There is one or two accounts by Pee Wee of even being used as a football for some games at the school, probably because while in high school he hadn't even reached 5 foot tall! But, what Dom lacked in height he made up for in fight and intelligence.

Once out of school Domenico worked in the grocery stores at first. Back in the 30s the grocery store (in his case the A&P) was a vastly different environment from today's big super stores. Then, it was all service. Dom started the way everyone started, by pushing a broom, but had soon worked his way up to providing service to customers as they came into the store. Dom would take the customer's order, run back into the store and fill the order, then come up front again, tally the amount and collect payment. Soon the exercise of writing down the prices of all the goods was purely for the sake of the customer because Dom was so good at math that he could add up the items as fast as he would get them. A talent that never left him even when he was older as he would visit his son where he worked as a cashier in a grocery store and add up the items on the belt at the register, total and then apply the appropriate tax (and it varied - not all items were taxed!) and give the number to his son by the time it would be totaled in the register.

Dom wasn't only good with numbers though and as soon as he was old enough he took to the pugilistic arts. While never gifted enough to be a great, his ability to fight served him well in the rough and tumble streets of Providence as well as in the ring - and it served him well as a soldier in the Big war, WW II. Domenico also worked in several of the Roosevelt administration programs including the CCCs , and while in that service contributed to the building of Beach Pond - a place that later in life was frequented by himself, his wife and his children.

As soon as the US announced that they were at war, Domenico went to volunteer and help Uncle Sam fight back the Axis powers. Zannini wanted to join the Navy, but at 5' 2" and barely 130 lbs soaking wet he didn't meet the minimum requirements so off he went to the Army office and signed up. Soon he would be off seeing parts of the world that the Italian kid from the mean streets of Providence could have never dreamed of.

After going through boot camp in the south (an experience that he never forgot) Domenico was shipped into the Pacific theater to fight the Japanese. His first assignment was on the island nation of Australia, which was also a place that he never forgot or grew tired of telling stories about. Until the day he died he always carried a small wallet from Australia in his pocket where he kept a picture of his wife and first son. In Australia, Dom the party animal legend was born. While he was down under Dom hooked up with guys that were to become life long friends: Tony Pelegrini, Tarquinio "Turk" Pambianchi, Al "the rug merchant" Acid and Joe Campenella. Like all men of their generation, very little was said about the war - but oh did the boys talk about the R&R. Pee Wee as he was then and forever known to his buddies from the war, always had liked two things: women and drinking. It was a pretty close race for which was number one or number two. While out on R&R, the boys decided to have a test of nerve and skill, while they were pretty much wasted. The bet? That Dom couldn't dive off the second floor balcony of the hotel into the swimming pool. Well, as it turned out, Pee wee was one hell of a diver and he took the bet. What he didn't know was that the pool was partially drained. What he did know after the dive - and a rather sudden stop - was that his nose was broken AGAIN. Luckily (especially for me, otherwise I wouldn't be here) that was the only injury and Dom collected on the bet. It was also the last time he dove off a second floor balcony into a pool.

Later in the campaign Dom's unit was transferred from Australia to the Philippines . It was this journey that was the most harrowing of his life. Shortly after departure the ship he was in, which luckily for him was a converted merchant ship and not a navel vessel, was tracked buy a submarine. For days the crew and the passengers sweated it out constantly vigilant for the tell tale signs of the submarine's impending attack. Then, suddenly, the sub was gone and the tension lifted - but even with that, the ship was always on the alert until their arrival. It was while in the Philippines that Dom was injured and not in any glorious fighting, but during a troop movement. A simple march, someone lost their footing and suddenly Domenico found himself in the hospital with knee problem. After a fairly quick recovery, Dominic found himself back on duty in time to celebrate Victory over Japan (or VJ day) before wrapping his military career and returning to the states.

When he returned Domenico found a good job in the famous and burgeoning Providence jewelry industry. He worked hard all day and he partied hard all night - especially out on the dance floors and ballrooms of 1940's Rhode Island. It was there that Domenic - a graceful and skillful dancer met another dancer, but one that stole his heart, the young, vivacious and striking Italian beauty Amelia Urciouli. Oddly, she had no such idea in her mind! However, being the fighter and never being one that took no for an answer, Domenic continued his pursuit until one day Amelia finally caught him - and on September 27, 1947 they were married.

After marriage, life settled into fairly normal patterns for Dom and Molly (as Amelia is known). They found their own apartment and had their first child, a son named Louis after Dom's father Luigi, in April of 1950. Five years later, and after several misses, they had their daughter named Elise (after Molly's mother Elisa) in November of 1955. In 1959 Dom and Molly fulfilled a life long dream and they moved out into the Providence suburbs and bought a home in Coventry, RI. A year later their second son and last child Phillip (who was apparently not named after anyone) was born in October of 1960. In the mid 60s Domenico left the volatility of the Providence jewelry and cutlery industry for a position in Davisville, RI working on the maintenance of Navy planes in the famous home of the See Bees. In 1974, Domenic's knees finally caught up with him and he was forced to retire on 100% medical disability from the Army. But where retirement is the end of the road for many, it was the start of the road for Dom and Molly.

Suddenly with time on his hands, Dom pursued two passions. 1. Golf. 2. Serving the needs of others. And he pursued them both with a vigor seldom seen. In relatively little time Domenico became Grand Knight in the Knights of Columbus, President of the Rhode Island chapter of the Disabled Veterans of America and of the AARP. His tireless and selfless giving of himself made him friends wherever he went. Both he and Molly served in meals on wheels (and got their 16 year old son to go with them by promising to let him drive the family car). He recieved countless citations from the DAV, the K of C and the Town of Coventry for ceaseless service to the community. But, of all the things he did, the one that the kids in the family enjoyed the most was his running the dough-boy booth (fried dough) at the local church carnival ever year.

In the late 70's and early 80's a lot was happening in the Zannini household. Unfortunately, some of it wasn't that good as Dom suffered a series of heart attacks. Still, even after the heart attacks, his golf game got better (though he was shorter off the tee) and some exciting things were happening too.

In 1978 his baby girl Elise got married. In 1979 Dom saw his first grandson (from his daughter Elise) born. A few short years later in 1982, Domenic along with Molly got to see one of their dreams fulfilled when their youngest child Phillip graduated with a college degree. It was the first time to the best of their knowledge that a complete generation of children were able to complete higher education. A few years later in 1985, his oldest son Lou was married. In 1992 Dom and Molly also saw another dream fulfilled when Phillip and Shanna were married on their 45th anniversary, September 27. That year in December, for the first and only time, the entire family gathered at Dom and Molly's home to celebrate Christmas with all of the children, their spouses and their grand-children.

On March 23, 1993 Dom and Molly ate a quiet dinner. After dinner, as was his habit, Dom did the dishes and made coffee for his wife of 45 years. After coffee, Dom passed away quietly as a final heart attack took his life after he had fallen asleep in his favorite chair.

Domenico Zannini was never a rich man in terms of money, but he died a man of great wealth. He was a man of great character, kindness and compassion - and at the same time he was a man's man, a fighter and a mischief maker of the first order. He left behind him a legacy far greater than his humble and tragic beginnings might have offered. He was a leader not just in words, but actions. He made sure his children accomplished something he never had the opportunity to accomplish. He was a loving husband, a loyal and fierce friend. Anyone who ever met him never forgot him. In fact, until the day he died he never had to pay on the family bet that no matter where he went, he would know someone. And that wasn't just in the local environment - it included travel across country, to Vegas, Florida, San Francsico and Hawaii. No matter where he went, someone always knew, remembered and greeted Domincio Zannini - the little man with the big heart.

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