It was in 1951, when television viewers adjusted the rabbit ears to watch the first I Love Lucy shows, gas was 19 cents a gallon, and the term "rock and roll" had just come into play.
Carl Merluzzi, a tall young man with an easy grin and affable personality, walked into the just-built Gnaden Huetten Memorial Hospital in Lehighton to service the sewing machines local women were using to make draperies for the medical center.
Sixty-one years of volunteer work later, Merluzzi hung up his red volunteer jacket for the last time in September.
On Tuesday, Blue Mountain Health System held a surprise farewell ceremony for Merluzzi, now 82, to honor his decades of volunteer service. The event was marked by laughter, tears, and fond memories.
Merluzzi's volunteer efforts were planted as a young man in 1951, when the hospital was opened, Poe said. His father, Peter, an Italian immigrant and one of the founders of the hospital, served on the original board of directors, as did Merluzzi's mother, Helen. His parents owned several clothing mills.
"He tells this great story about how they needed draperies made. His father brought sewing machines out to the hospital, and Carl would come and service the machines. Right from the start, they were here," Guardiani said.
Merluzzi continued to volunteer, and when he wed his sweetheart, Ethel Mae, she, too, devoted time to Gnaden Huetten. Ethel Mae, who passed away in Dec. 2007, was an auxiliary member and coordinated the hospital's gift shop.
"They were a team here," said Director of Development Joseph Guardiani said. "They were out here at the hospital almost every day of their lives."
Merluzzi did everything from guide visitors and patients through the hospital to making sure there enough wheelchairs were always handy in the lobby. Mention of the wheelchairs sparked laughter among all who knew of Merluzzi's almost obsessive insistence that there be five wheelchairs in the lobby at all times. He also facilitated meetings and events, making sure the coffee was made, chairs arranged and materials were ready, Guardiani said.
Merluzzi manned telephones as the volunteer coordinator. He ran the annual festival, pancake breakfasts, delivered mail, answered phones, helping Ethel Mae in the gift shop, and served on the boards of directors of Gnaden Huetten and BMHS.
"He helped in any way he could," Poe said in an earlier interview.
Most recently, Merluzzi worked as a volunteer greeter. Stationed at the lobby door, wearing his trademark red volunteer jacket, welcoming people and helping them with directions.
Merluzzi is the kind of guy everyone turned to, Poe said.
"If I ever needed anything, it was Carl I would have gone to," she said.
The event on Tuesday featured accolades from BMHS President Andrew Harris and others. Harris thanked Merluzzi for his support.
"I'll never forget all you've done. You've supported me, made me a better person. You've made my team better people, and our community of 65,00 better served because of everything you and your family have done all these years," Harris said. "You may be 100 miles away, but your presence will be here for a long, long, long, long time."
Henry Bisbing, president of the hospital auxiliary, described Merluzzi as "Mr. Gnaden Huetten."
Carbon County Commissioner William O'Gurek presented Merluzzi with a resolution, praising Merluzzi and his late wife for their lifetime of service.
O'Gurek also referred to the rocks in the Tree of Life in the hospital lobby, marked with Carl and Ethel Mae's names. He spoke of all that rocks connote: A solid foundation, strength and steadfastness all qualities the Merluzzi's stand for.
"Carl, you rock," O'Gurek said.
Guardiani spoke of his special bond with Merluzzi, whom he met in 2007, when Guardiani began his job as director of development.
"He was one of the first people to greet me, to make me feel welcomed here at Blue Mountain Health System. We became fast friends. Carl and I would have coffee together almost every day," he said.
Guardiani calls Merluzzi "my goombah."
"Everybody thinks goombah means buddy, but it's godfather in Sicilian. I was really nervous when I took this job, and just his being here every day, and having that person to talk to every morning, for that first six or seven months of learning a new job, he made all the difference for me. I love him for that. I'll go to my grave remembering his kindnesses to me. I will never forget his kindness. He will always be my goombah," Guardiani said in an earlier interview.
Merluzzi was presented with a shadow box, crafted by the public relations office, which includes Guardiani, BMHS Vice-president of Public Relations Lisa Johnson, and assistant Denise Kennedy. The shadow box included the red volunteer's jacket Merluzzi wore, complete with his volunteer auxiliary membership logo; two macadamia cookies Guardiani explained that Merluzzi bought two of the cookies each day at lunch. A gentleman to the core, he'd eat one and share the other with any women who sat at the table, but not with the men. Memories of that endearing quirk elicited chuckles from the crowd.
Also in the shadowbox are a still taken from an early television BMHS commercial which featured the Merluzzi's, and a thumb drive of the ad, which ran shortly before Ethel Mae's death.
"It ran every night, and Carl would make a point, at the end of the news, to watch it, because he knew his Ethel Mae would be on," Guardiani said. "He loved that. He loved seeing her at the end of the news."
He put the still on the right hand shoulder of the jacket, because "she's been sitting on his shoulder for the past five years."
A sewing kit is tucked into the pocket of the jacket. Merluzzi, a former Carbon County Emergency Management director.
"He was the epitome of emergency preparedness," Guardiani said. "He always had a sewing kit, he always had a utility knife."
Also in the shadow box is a picture of the laying of the hospital cornerstone, and a small granite coaster from a 1997 renovation project, when Merluzzi served on the board.
The shadow box also includes a worry stone donated by Guardiani. He said he contributed the stone, which belonged to his father.
Guardiani said his father would tell the story of how, as a young GI in World War II, visited St. Peter's cathedral. He went to see the bronze statue of St. Peter, as he waited in line, he saw that all of the people would approach the statute and touch St. Peter's foot. He realized that, from "centuries of people doing that, the bronze was worn flat from that simple act."
His father, who passed away many years ago, always carried the stone, which has a shallow groove worn into it from frequent rubbing.
"I put it into the shadow box because Carl, every day, touched peoples' lives here in this hospital. He's worn a groove in this institution. He's touched so many peoples' lives, not just staff, but patients and volunteers. Simply by showing up, and doing that day in and day out, he has worn a groove in an institution," Guardiani said. "Doctors, nurses, board members you name one, and he's had an impact on them. Simply by the fact that he was there."
The Gnaden Huetten campus has established the "Carl Merluzzi Volunteer Recognition Board," which will feature the names of those volunteers who have logged a certain amount of time served.
Merluzzi always had a funny story to tell, Guardiani said. One was about his and Ethel Mae's honeymoon. They stayed at a hotel in Williamsburg, Virginia. The room had a plump feather bed, and when the tall and hefty Merluzzi plopped down, Ethel, a tiny, slender woman, flew into the air.
The Merluzzi's, wed 55 years, were devoted to each other.
"It was obvious how much in love they were," Guardiani said. He said Merluzzi often spoke tenderly of his late wife.
"They were soul mates," Poe said. "They didn't need anybody else."
The couple have a daughter, Carolyn Urbanski, of Coatesville. Merluzzi recently moved into an apartment near her. Urbanski and her husband, Kenneth, brought Merluzzi to the farewell party.