“Hey paisan(o)" was the likely greeting Chick Sandella and Leo Toccket shared when they reunited for the first time in over 60 years on Sunday, Oct. 18, at a place where they frequented back in the 1940s and 1950s. But the embrace of two old time buddies - classmates, too, who graduated in 1942 from the former Summit Hill High School - probably spoke volumes to the handful of witnesses at the St. Gabriel's Club in their hometown.
“I haven't seen you in years," Sandella quickly followed. And with the renewed acquaintenance, members of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America, Lodge No. 43, pretty much understood the mutuality of their ancestry.
The occasion was to mark the lodge's decision to honor longtime members of the organization that started in Summit Hill back in 1933.
“There aren't but three 'old timers' left," in the club said Joseph Matika, longtime recording secretary of the Italian Club and the keeper of its records, including membership. Incidentally, there are 48 regular members and 402 social members of the club this year.
Sunday's get-together was all about the club's origins. The current officers of the club wanted to honor Sandella, Toccket and Frank George, a Summit Hill resident who was unable to attend the event, for their continuous membership in the club (66, 60 and 61 years, respectively).
President Vince Valentini presented to them certificates of appreciation, jackets embroidered with the club's insignia and their names on them, and matching hats as well. The certificates praised the members' continuous service and assistance which attributed to the “advancement of the St. Gabriel's Club and its programs and activities."
“I consider this quite an honor," remarked Sandella, now 85. “I'm extremely appreciative of the awards."
Toccket, 86, a resident of Sunbury, Northumberland County, said he too appreciated the gesture. He left Summit Hill in 1955 and hadn't been back in a long time. “But it's always a pleasure (to come home)," he said, adding, “I remember back in the late 30s and early 40s when our parents were here. Sunday afternoons were great times when everyone of Italian descent got together. The club started to grow and turned into a great organization."
Sandella pointed out there were Italian clubs in Lansford and Tamaqua, both of which continue to function. He said, “For a lot of us in this area, our parents came from Italy. They were close to one another. Insurance (available through the club) was important and what little they could find, they found it in places like this. So, getting together, like they did, was the very thing to do."
A former beer distributor, Sandella recalled, “There were a lot of clubs and bars in the area. In Summit Hill, there were 15 licenses. Now, there are five. So it's nice to know St. Gabe's is one of them. It's a tribute to this club and particularly to the Italian people who sponsored it."
While Sandella, Toccket and George, 88, are the three oldest members of the club, Matika is next in line. He said the ceremony “was a great opportunity to renew acquaintenances with the old timers," noting, “I know it's been over 45 years since I saw Leo (Toccket). I enjoyed just watching Chick and him reminisce. It was hilarious, especially if they were speaking in Italian, and it was so very gratifying to see that the two ex-classmates were able to get together again."
Matika recalled back decades back the club was noted for its great hoagie sales. He said, “Our customers took us to Coaldale, Lansford, Nesquehoning, Jim Thorpe, Lehighton, Weissport and Palmerton, and, in some cases, points beyond. I think I hold the record for a sale the furthest away. There was an Air Force colonel stationed relatively close to us who had either relatives or very close friends in Summit Hill, and he often was in town on a weekend to visit with them. He would also stop at the club for his customary two hoagies. This one day, he stopped in while I was there and he ordered six hoagies. Naturally, I was inquisitive, so I asked if he had friends with him. 'No,' he said, 'These are going with me. I have a flight this evening to England and I have friends over there.' So, I believe to this day that I hold the record for the longest sale in distance."
As time marched on, the sales stopped, although the benevolence of the club did not. Valentini pointed out, “We continually do things to be a part of the community, giving to charties, such as the food pantry or the cancer society, and sponsoring Christmas parties and Easter egg hunts for the children. We also hold a benefit fundraiser every year for an organization or individual who needs a hand."
While Valentini serves as club president, other officers are Tony Rutch, treasurer, Joe Kozuch, vice president, Kevin Collevechio, secretary, and Matika, recording secretary. Trustees are Jody Johnson, Tom Turner and Victor Leonzi, while Robert Collevechio is the club sentinel.
Most of the officers were present when the old timers" came back for what was a brief but important moment in the club's history. “You (guys) deserve the credit," Johnson told Sandella and Toccket (and included George), If it wasn't for you, we wouldn't be here today."