Area man reunites childhood friends eight decades later

Reunited after 80 years

OBSERVER Photo by Mary Heyl After 80 years apart, Angelo Bomasuto (left) of Dunkirk and Fredonia native John Joy were reunited by their mutual friend, Bill Matteson (center) of Fredonia.

“Where did the 80 years go?,” said Angelo Bomasuto, 88, a life-long Dunkirk resident, who was recently reunited with childhood friend John Joy, whom he hasn’t seen in 80 years. Although their lives took very different directions — from different schools, to different branches of the military, even to Broadway — 80 years later, the two were reunited, thanks to mutual friend Bill Matteson, who put the puzzle pieces together.

Growing up in ‘Little Italy’

“We shared the same early life,” Joy recalled of their childhood in Dunkirk and Fredonia. Separated only by the city line, Bomasuto and Joy, both Italians, shared the same heritage, the same jobs and the same memories. “He picked berries on my family’s farm, the Joys, on Water Street in Fredonia,” Joy recalled.

“He picked berries when he was five years old for my Uncle Tony. I was up the road picking berries for my grandfather. We were both pretty much the same age, doing the same thing.”

Bomasuto nodded at the memory. “I was five years old, picking strawberries for five cents a quart,” he said. “If you picked 20 quarts, you made a dollar. My mother would come with me, and we both picked. I worked all my life!”

Bomasuto and Joy both attended the same elementary school on Temple Street in Fredonia, where they became friends. Today, the apartment building is known as One Temple Square, but at that time, it was known as the Fredonia Normal School. They both have fond memories of visiting Mrs. Cellura’s store near St. Anthony’s Church in Fredonia, in the Ochard Street/Cleveland Avenue area, known then as “Little Italy.”

By the time the two were eight years old, they formed a bond over another job. “He lived in Fredonia and I lived in Dunkirk, but we both peddled papers when we were young,” Bomasuto explained. Then known as the EVENING OBSERVER, the paper had an afternoon press run, and was delivered by children after school. “We had connecting routes: I delivered papers on Central Avenue up to the city line, and John delivered the rest of the route to Temple Street,” Bomasuto explained.

“Our childhoods were so similar,” Joy recalled, noting the heritage they share. Bomasuto agreed. “We’re both Italians, but Sicilians. My father and his father were born in Sicily,” Bomasuto said. “My father lived in a fishing village — he could see Libya from where he lived. He came from Sicily here, and the minute he got here, they threw my father in the Army. When World War I ended, he settled down here and raised eight kids.”

Joy explained, “Ninety percent of the Sicilians in Fredonia came from the same little town called Valledolmo in Sicily. My grandmother came to America in one of the first groups of Italians that came in 1888. She was 16 years old, all by herself: a farm girl, illiterate and somehow had the gumption to get on a boat and come to America in steerage!”

Bomasuto’s and Joy’s paths diverged when the two finished grade school, and eighty years passed before they saw each other again.

Joy’s journey

Joy enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after his senior year at Dartmouth College in 1953. That summer, Joy asked his father to drop him off on the highway with his knapsack and blanket roll, and he hitchhiked his way across the country to Los Angeles and made his way home in time to report for duty in October.

In the Marines, Joy had a platoon in Korea; after the armistice was signed, he was sent to Japan. “I became the division intelligence officer, and my specialty was Vietnam of all places, before we got involved in the war,” Joy recalled. “I spent a year in Japan, which I loved, and I found I could use my accrued leave to go home the long way.” Joy explored the world on his way home and stopped in the Philippines, India, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Italy, Germany, France, England, Iceland and finally New York City.

“When I was in New York City, I popped in the American Theater Wing, which had a training school for performers,” Joy recalled. “That was in December. I was back enrolled in school under the G.I. Bill in 1956, and that began my struggle to make it to Broadway!”

At that time, Joy joined the Prince Street Players, a well-known theater company in the 1960s that performed reimaginations of classic fairy tales. There, Joy became friends with Matteson’s grandmother, Jeanne Bargy, co-composer and musical director of the Prince Street Players, who achieved fame as a performer, composer and accompanist with her own television show, “Blues by Bargy,” which aired for two years (1949-50) on CBS.

Speaking of the Prince Street Players, Joy explained, “We had 10 shows in repertory; they were very humorous, new, interesting twists on classics like Cinderella and Pinocchio…I did three television shows for them, and then I got my first Broadway show.”

Pinocchio, the last Prince Street Players show before Broadway, was a special gift for Joy, who had performed 20 parts in 10 different shows with the company. “Jeanne (Bargy) and Jim (Eiler), the partners, sat down one day and said, ‘John’s worked so hard for us. It’s time we did a show for John.’ Since I’m Italian — Sicilian — they decided to do Pinocchio for me. It was a wonderful experience; a labor of love,” said Joy.

“At the end of the show, everyone crowded around me and they presented me with a wooden Pinocchio, like it was an Academy Award,” Joy recalled. “It was the equivalent of that, to me.”

Joy then fulfilled a lifelong dream of meeting Broadway director George Abbott, whom he had read about as a child in the library, where he spent many hours reading plays. “He was born in Forestville of all places; he is probably the greatest influence on American musical theater, ever,” Joy pointed out. “I decided that if I ever got to New York, that if he found out I was from Fredonia, he was going to make me a star,” he chuckled. “It took some time, but he directed my first Broadway show, ‘How Now, Dow Jones,’ and my second, ‘Fig Leaves are Falling.'”

Joy’s career on Broadway was cut short by a motorcycle accident that took place outside of Rochester when Joy was on his way back from visiting Fredonia for his birthday. Just 38 years old, Joy was hit on his motorcycle and sustained extensive injuries; it was two years before he could walk again. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to perform again, so I went back to school and got my doctorate at Carnegie Mellon and started teaching theater at Texas A&M,,” said Joy.

He went on to become the head of the acting program at University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “That’s where my best student, Beth Leavel, was Dolly in ‘Hello, Dolly!’,” said Joy. “She got her first Tony Award for ‘The Drowsy Chaperone,’ and now she’s up for another Tony award for a musical she’s doing called ‘Prom.'” Joy has seen Leavel multiple times since then, and even joined her at UB, where she taught master classes with another of Joy’s former students, who was head of their musical theater program.

Joy retired to the area, Cherry Creek, and taught at the Cassadaga Job Corps for several years. He resides in Cherry Creek still, although recently an injury sent him to Chautauqua Nursing & Rehabilitation for several months, where he saw Matteson who was visiting Bomasuto’s sister, a resident there.

Bomasuto’s journey

After high school, Bomasuto enlisted in the Navy, where he served on a ship in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans during the Korean War. “In the Navy, I was on the boxing team on the Atlantic fleet,” said Bomasuto. “I got nailed a couple of times. Some of those punches have stayed with me! I think I’m the only guy on Hospice that would like to get back in the ring,” he laughed.

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1956, Bomasuto went on a blind date with Carol Murphy of Brocton, “an Irish girl,” Bomasuto was quick to point out. Joy, too, recalled the “fist-throwing days” between different ethnic groups during their early years. “You had the Irish kids, the Polish kids in Dunkirk, the Italians from Fredonia,” he recalled. “We fought like cats and dogs, and then later on in life, we married each other!”

Bomasuto and his wife raised their two children on Fairview Avenue in Dunkirk. He spent 35 years at the steel plant, where he worked second shift until 11 p.m. and then become a “paper boy,” once again. “I’d get in the truck, drive to Buffalo and meet the freight plane that brought in the New York Times,” Bomasuto explained. “I’d drive 4,000 papers out to Rochester and drive home. I’d get back at 6 a.m., sleep ’til noon. Then I had four hours with my wife. I did that for 12 years, on the run.”

“You had to do it if you wanted to get ahead,” Joy pointed out. “My father did the same thing: steel plant, come home at 4 p.m., nap in his easy chair for an hour, and then he’d go to work at the canning factory. Just like Ang, for years he did that. That was the only way we got anywhere.”

“I worked construction at the college, too,” said Bomasuto. “I helped build the administration building, Mason Hall and Gregory Hall, where my mother-in-law was the head lady.”

After retiring, Bomasuto worked as a volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels for 14 years, until he was 79 years old. “I loved driving for Meals on Wheels,” Bomasuto said. “I met so many people; I’ve seen all kinds of life. I saw a lot of my people (on my route) die over the years — 20 or 25 that I had delivered food to — and that was tough.”

Carol added, “He would probably still be doing it if he hadn’t fallen and broken two bones in his back!”

The couple has now been married for 60 years. “She has given up everything for the last few years to take care of Ang,” said Matteson. “She doesn’t leave his side. For the past seven years, she’s slept in that chair while he sleeps in this one. From doctors appointments to meals, bathing, all of it. When someone gets sick, sometimes the attitude is, ‘Hire someone, hire someone!'” said Matteson. “Well, she is that someone. She does it all.”

Putting the pieces together

A childhood friend and classmate of the Bomasutos’ children, Matteson became friends with Angelo and Carol many years later when the couple retired to the Greco Lane apartments in Dunkirk. Matteson and his children lived upstairs from the couple, and visited them often and became close friends. Matteson, who already knew Joy from his friendship with grandmother Jeanne Bargy, was surprised to see Joy at Chautauqua Nursing & Rehabilitation, where Matteson often visits Bomasuto’s sister.

“John was on the same wing as Ang’s sister and talked to her from time to time, but he didn’t know he was talking to Ang’s sister. She has dementia,” Matteson explained. “Angelo had told me stories about picking berries and beans and how little they got paid. I heard John was doing the same thing at the same age on the same farm. I thought, ‘These guys have to know each other!'”

Indeed, they did, and Matteson made plans to get the two together. Just a few weeks ago, Matteson picked up Joy from his home in Cherry Creek, and took him to the Bomasutos’ apartment in Dunkirk.

“The last time we saw each other, we were students at the Fredonia Normal School,” said Bomasuto.

“What I witnessed was jaw-drops, just staring at each other,” said Matteson, when he helped Joy enter the apartment for the reunion. “It took them a second to say hi because they were just staring at each other. It was exciting; just a really nice feeling to watch.”

For Matteson, who owns the Family Martial Arts Center with fiancee, Julie Lynn, this was a life-changing experience, too. “One of my sons died four months ago,” Matteson said. “Since then, I’m even more committed to reuniting people. Relationships are so important; they’re everything. There are no second chances.”

“I see John now, and I hope to see him again soon,” said Bomasuto. Joy is looking forward to celebrating his 88th birthday (May 31) at the Trillium Lodge in Cherry Creek, and hopes that Bomasuto can join him. Matteson pointed out that Bomasuto already turned 88 on October 10.

“You’re older than me!” Joy crowed.

Bomasuto laughed, “I’m going to keep an eye on you.”