He was appropriately named “Peter” – a rock, a foundation. And appropriately, he built houses. He started building with his father and brother in Connecticut after serving in the Coast Guard in World War II. In 1952 he moved to Pennsylvania and built hundreds of houses in Bethlehem, first with his brother Nando, and then running his own business. What was unique about “Peter Volpinari, Builder” wasn’t the quantity but the quality of the homes and the qualities of the builder. He was known as a hard-working, honest, and ethical man.
He started out as the second son of hard-working, Italian-immigrant parents. He had so many interesting stories from his childhood. Like his most famous one about being kicked in the nose by a horse when he pulled its tail. Or how, after milking the neighbor’s cows, he went to school in a horse-drawn wagon. There he learned English and then went home and taught his parents the language. He would tell us about getting an orange for Christmas and eating it slowly to savor it. Or shaking the snow off his blankets in the morning, before his family moved to the new house, where they actually had indoor plumbing and electricity. He remembered throwing the switch the first time, and his mother telling him and his siblings not to wear it out.
He was responsible for endless chores about the house – blacking the stove, getting water from the well, making the family’s bread, bread that he would take to school for lunch filled with prosciutto, embarrassed that he didn’t have peanut butter and jelly on store bread like his classmates. And there were his farm chores – riding the plow horse and making the wine and holding the pan to catch the blood for the blood pudding as the pigs were slaughtered (and heaven help if he spilled any). As one of his grandchildren poignantly said this week, “He made the bread and he made the wine, right, Mom?”
As a child of the Depression he knew the value of money. When he was a young man, he and his brother and cousin went in together on the purchase of their first car, a Model T. Together, they couldn’t come up with the five dollars the owner wanted, and they talked him into letting them have it for four dollars and seventy-five cents.
He never forgot his humble beginnings, from which he learned the value of work and the enjoyment of family. And who has not shared in Pete’s success? He was from an early age the one the family turned to for help and advice. He was a dutiful son to his parents and a supportive big brother to his sisters, Eleanor and Olga. As a family man, he was for many years the only adult male, carving the turkey at the table with Peggy and his kids, his mother-in-law Mickey, his sister-in-law Betty, and great aunts Helen and Claire. He shared his house with members of his extended family, sometimes for years at a time. And he was so good to Betty.
And how many of us have enjoyed his beach house? That beach house was the highlight of his kids’ childhoods, where they learned to swim and play Scrabble and got to really know and love their cousins and relatives. The beach house became a haven for the next generation’s childhoods too. And how many times did he swim out to the island and back before we got up in the morning?
Pete was a wonderful, wonderful father and grandfather. He rarely raised his voice and never cursed, even when helping his children with their math homework (with an always sharp pencil). Having never played as a child, he found it difficult to play with his children, but he always made them laugh, always made them feel loved and supported.
His grandchildren were a source of joy and pride. He sat through innumerable games, meets, and recitals and insisted he enjoyed every single one.
Pete often said that the greatest thing he did in his life was to marry Peggy McLaughlin. They started with a honeymoon in Atlantic City that lasted only three days because he had to get back to write the checks for his employees. Pete and Peggy complemented each other – they worked together in the business and in the kitchen. They grew the business from humble beginnings, when they worked at the kitchen table and had the filing cabinet next to Carol’s bed. The adding machine with the melted key was next to the waffle iron. They’d use all their savings to build the next house. But the business thrived, and the kids grew up, and the family grew to include 14 grandchildren. His children and grandchildren took him and Peggy on a 50th anniversary cruise, which he truly enjoyed because they were all there with him.
Peter Volpinari met the goals he set in life – his business was successful, his children and grandchildren were healthy and with him often, and he lived to see the millennium, his 50th anniversary, and, just three days before he died, his 86th birthday. He knew he was blessed, and he shared his blessings with others – his family, his community, and his church. With his usual sense of humor (and humility), he said that he had a lucky life because he carried the mark of a horseshoe on his face. Congratulations, Pete . . . Dad . . . Nonno . . . on a wonderful life.