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A titanic spirit

  • John Dallas, Tamaqua
    John Dallas, Tamaqua
Published December 07. 2012 05:04PM

He wasn't a politician, entertainer, or public figure. He wasn't a member of clubs or organizations.

Yet John Dallas was known by just about everybody in town.

The colorful Tamaqua man passed away earlier this year at age 100. He carried the torch of an earlier era and it was a role he relished.

Folks say he marched to the beat of a different drummer. With trimmed moustache and a gleam in his eye, there was something special about the theatrical Italian man born on Halloween a century ago.

In fact, he may have been the town's final living link to the Victorian period. And townspeople say there will never be another.

Molly movie role

John Dallas - his name shortened from D'Allesio - thrived on all things Victorian even though, he, himself, was a product of the Edwardian era. He was born in Tamaqua in 1912, the year of the Titanic.

His parents were George and Sylvina (Zingaro) Dallas. His family commissioned bricklayers from Italy to build the Italian Bakery on Pleasant Row. The small business, still in existence and owned by the Padoras, boasts one of the country's sole remaining anthracite coal-fired brick ovens, and Dallas spoke proudly of it.

Dallas also spoke of serving his country and his time as chief petty officer of the Navy Seabees.

"He was diehard U. S. Navy veteran," says Tamaqua businessman Ken Smulligan, long-time friend.

Dallas was hired by Sun Oil Co. in Philadelphia, later becoming a pipefitter for what was then Pennsylvania Power & Light Co.

In his personal life, he exuded an aura of style, a flair for the dramatic, something noticed at one point by Hollywood filmers.

In 1968, Dallas was hired by Paramount Studios to appear in the movie "The Molly Maguires," a Martin Ritt production.

He was one of 600 extras taken aboard and paid $15 a day and free lunches for two months. During production of the legendary film, Dallas rubbed elbows with the likes of Samantha Eggar, Sean Connery and Richard Harris, big stars of the day.

He appeared in scenes shot in the museum town of Eckley.

"There was one scene where the miners were walking at the coal breaker and Dallas just happened to put his arm around another miner. The directors liked it so much they kept it in the film," says Smulligan.

He also served as a stand-in, contributing to the scene with the corpse, deceased father of the lead female role played by Eggar. Many say that segment is the film's most moving.

Overcame conflict

Dallas was devoted to preservation activities and made contributions and donations to local causes.

Many say he was somewhat of a character. For instance, Dallas secretly stashed away funds in his two-story, wood frame home.

"He kept money in a coffee can stored in the coal bin in the cellar," says Smulligan. He also was known to hammer out old nails to straighten them for reuse.

"He was always a kind, generous and eccentric gentleman as long as I knew him," says Dale Freudenberger, president, Tamaqua Historical Society. "Although he often stayed to himself, he loved the history and culture of our town and the coal region. He always tried to promote and preserve it in his own way. He was an intelligent and fascinating man."

But most people simply didn't understand the gears that made Dallas tick.

For instance, over time he received criticism for the manner in which he stored items at his Arlington Street residence.

After several complaints, police had no choice but to cite Dallas, who reluctantly obliged and cleaned up the property.

Some say the episode hurt Dallas deeply. He may have felt betrayed, believing townspeople didn't appreciate his passion to save things he thought had value. In his eyes, Dallas saw virtually old items as treasures, not junk.

"He was ahead of his time because he considered it recycling," says Smulligan. "He was bitter over it for quite a few years. He started giving his donations out of town. I'd say it lasted about ten years."

But Dallas was unsinkable. Eventually, he mellowed. When wounds healed, his generosity to Tamaqua returned. And he did it with a grand gesture.

Like the surprise at the tip of a magician's wand, Dallas showed up and donated a large, nickel-plated brass coffee urn from a page in history. It was pure 1920s, like one that once percolated java in the restaurant at the depot. No, it's not the original, he figured. That one is long gone. But it's one just like it and visitors won't know the difference anyway.

He made the presentation to the Tamaqua Save Our Station (SOS) restoration team on March 16, 1997. Dallas was 87 at the time. He said he'd been searching for the urn ever since he saw an early photograph.

"I made up my mind to find one," Dallas told the TIMES NEWS back then. He and friend Mark DeWire eventually discovered one at a flea market.

"It had been found in the basement of the Hotel Bethlehem," said Dallas. "I knew I wanted it the minute I saw it but didn't have money with me that day." DeWire found a nearby MAC machine and came up with the funds.

Friends reminisce

Dallas was respected and admired, a friend to all. In 2002, the town bestowed him the honor of grand marshal of the Memorial Day parade.

In later years, Dallas continued his pursuit of antiques. He collected everything from pennies to windmills, and was a fixture at Renninger's Farmers Market near Schuylkill Haven.

"Anything he saw, he carried home," says Harry Barron, South Tamaqua. Barron and Dallas were friends since 1944 when Dallas worked at Sun Oil.

Businessman George Geissinger, Tamaqua, met Dallas in the 1960s when he helped Dallas clean out the old Coney Island eatery at the Five Points.

"He was a good person for remembering people who were good to him and helped him," says Gessinger, "or would listen to his tales without calling him a foolish old man. And listening to him, I don't think there were many of us who appreciated his knowledge. Yes, John Dallas, someone I will remember and like 'til I get old and forgetful."

Tamaqua borough workers always appreciated Dallas, even during the time of differences over the clutter of artifacts stacked around his house.

"He was always a gentleman," says Jim Barron, former code enforcement officer.

Others recall his appreciation of the glorious and visual.

"He was a faithful attendee of gallery shows and paid visits to the Banana Factory arts center in Bethlehem," says Linda Yulanavage, Chamber executive director.

Despite failing health, Dallas appeared at the No. 9 Mine Festival in Lansford on August 13, 2008, proudly displaying his favorite movie prop, a copper miner's canteen signed by stars of the Maguires film. It was a keepsake and valued memento of his days spent with Paramount Studios.

Shortly later, Dallas entered a Pine Grove care facility. Friends say he was alert mentally, but age was taking a toll physically.

"In the past few years, I hated to see him go downhill," says Geissinger. "I wondered where and how it would end. I pictured him with a hammer or saw in his hand fixing something. But it didn't go that way."

Dallas passed away on Tuesday morning, April 10, 2012, in the Veterans Administration Medical Center, Lebanon. The naval officer born during the year of the Titanic left the world during the week of the Titanic's 100th anniversary commemoration.

He left a house full of 100 years of memories. His personal affairs were handled by nephew Jim Dallas, Wilmington, Delaware, who says: "This man loved Tamaqua and mankind."

And the people of Tamaqua loved John Dallas.

In the end, the most cherished donation he gave to the town was the gift of himself.

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