Pat Cappabianca is a man that has done many things in his life, and been many things in his life. Now 83, Pat has accomplished more than he ever thought was possible. He has been a teacher, a councilman, a principle, administrator and civil servant among other things. He has seen many things and been many places in his life but no matter where he goes you can always bet where he’s going to end back up. In his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania.
As Pat grew up the Great Depression was coming to a close and World War II was just beginning. He still remembers where he was when Pearl Harbor was bombed when he was 7 years old. “My parents would tell me as I grew older that things were very tough then [the depression], but the Italians always managed.”
Pat grew up in Little Italy in downtown Erie. His parents came over from Italy making Pat a first generation New American, and his parents Italian New Americans. Why they chose Erie Pat doesn’t know but he wouldn’t trade his time growing up in his hometown for anything.
“Erie was a big small town,” Pat said. “The neighborhoods were mostly condensed to their own nationality. The east side was mostly polish. Down by the lake was mostly Irish. So we grew up in our own environment.”
If your like me you thought that when he said that the neighborhoods were all separated by nationality it was like a West Side Story type of thing when everyone got together, not the case, “All the kids from all over the city came down to the swimming pool and would play together, gangs didn’t start showing up like that till the actual movie can out,” said Pat with a smile.
Pat’s father was the last royal Italian consul for Northwest Pennsylvania. Pat was even born in the Italian Consulate Office. You could say he’s the closest thing to being Italian without being born there. He didn’t even speak English till he was 7 years old before that all he heard was Italian. “He [Pat’s Father] had to do a lot of immigration work but only with the Italians, sell property that sort of thing.”
“You really didn’t have to leave your neighborhood each neighborhood had everything,” said Pat. “Even a church. The masses were set in Italian; we had our own Newspaper, Undertaker all kinds of things. And that was the same as every neighborhood. St. Anthony was the Irish Church within a block was St. Casimir the Polish church, within another block was St. Holy Family the Slavic church. They are combined now. Erie was a little hustling growing town that was made up mostly by the nationalities.”
“Most parents were all New Americans they came over on the boat [where I grew up] me and all my friends were first generation New Americans people aren’t really coming from Italy and Europe anymore unless it’s Syrian Refugees most are coming in from the east.”
The numbers don’t lie statistically the most people coming to the U.S. in order is Mexico, China, and India. The first European country to appear on the list is the U.K. way down in the 13th slot and do they really count?
Pat graduated from Strong Vincent High School in 1950. And dreamed of becoming a lawyer. Before he could start on his secondary education he was drafted for the Korean War. “I should’ve graduated in 1954 if it wasn’t for the war,” Pat said. He went to infantry school in Georgia but never ended up being deployed. When he got back he realized that we wouldn’t be able to afford to go to law school and went into education. Graduating in 1957 from Gannon University.
In 1966 he earned his first city council seat. And was a councilman for 28 years many of those years he was also the Principle of Grindley Junior High School.
Not everyone loves Italians as Pat found out way back in 1957 when he was first starting out being a teacher. A parent came up and said that they were going to pull their kid out of a class that he was teaching just because he was Italian. “The Principle stuck up for me and told the parents to leave him in the class, he’ll have a good experience. And he did.”
But working over 50 years you’re bound to make some enemy’s. “When I was Principle a kid didn’t like my discipline and he still hates me to this day. If I run for office he’s campaigning against me.”
After a little while Pat says, “Follow me.” He leads me down to the basement of his house flips on the lights and says, “These might help.” He shows me a wall of Awards. “How did you get all these?” I asked. “Through the years.”
Amongst all these awards was something I would never have expected. After talking to Pat for more than an hour I would never have guessed him to be a big movie guy. But sure enough in Pat’s basement he has the largest collection of classic movie memorabilia you would ever see. Turning that around you wouldn’t think to look at me but unlike most people my age I can distinguish Humphrey Bogart from Cary Grant. I’ve seen 15 minutes of Casablanca before dosing off; I like to think I’m more cultured than most 21 year olds.
“Who’s that,” He asks looking at me grinning pointing to one of his giant sized bobble heads. “James Dean,” I respond. He gave an approving nod as he proceeded to ask me to name what had to be every movie actor that worked in the 1930’s and 40’s. I came away with, Monroe, Wayne, Chaplin, and Stewart but missed about twenty other iconic people that we never saw in color. “Better than most kids your age,” he says.
Now retired Pat spends most of his time with his family picking up his grandson from school every chance he can get.
“Why does Erie mean so much to you,” I asked him. “It’s where I grew up it’s my hometown. It’s a beautiful city, the only problem is the snow,” Pat said.
At this point in the interview the doorbell rings and Pat excuses himself to answer it. I here a second later, “Austin do you have a black Honda?” I answer, “Yes.” “Come here.” This is when I get notified that his next-door neighbor hit my car. “Can I give you a piece of advice,” said Pat. “Of course,” I said. “You shouldn’t park behind driveways.”