A Singular Ordinary Man

One of the most unusual men I ever knew died last week. He wasn’t a national figure or much noticed outside the circle of his family, friends, and community. He didn’t graduate from a prestigious university and, since he was a teenager during the Great Depression, barely made it out of high school before he had to go to work. But he lived an honorable life, and even a life that may have touched – in the way of the vast majority of ordinary people – on holiness and heroic charity.

His name was Nello (an odd moniker that he was so proud of it that he offered his children a large sum to name one of the grandchildren after him – without success); he was one of my mother’s brothers and therefore my uncle. I bring him to your attention not for that, but because he’s the kind of person who used to be commoner in our culture, but has become all but invisible today. If a man or woman like this is brought to our attention now, it’s as a slightly offbeat “human interest” story in the media.

In my view, most of the leaders in Washington and elsewhere are more or less interchangeable, with educations and attitudes that, like all human things, have their value, but reflect a very narrow slice of humanity. As a nation, we could swap out our entire political and intellectual class with less loss than we could afford to lose sight of people like Nello.

He took an eccentric path into adulthood. He got married, had kids, bought a house – but not like everyone else. His brothers got jobs and had considerable success in big companies: General Electric, the railroads, manufacturing. My first memories of him were when he showed up at the house, as he did at thousands in the area, as what I think ought to be frankly called a peddler. He’d started a business selling laundry bleach, Starwater, which he delivered directly to people’s homes on a regular basis, the way milkmen used to home-deliver milk. He also had trays of sundries: clothespins, shoelaces, ribbons, thimbles, needles, and more substantial items, which every household needs and he made easy to buy.

Out of this unashamed, humble entrepreneurship, he must have done pretty well because by the time I came back from college, he’d bought a number of rental properties and even a small dance hall that he rented out for weddings and other celebrations. As I was struggling to find my way, he’d always ask kindly in the old fashion, “you making a buck?” Later, he would tell me and my kids that you couldn’t make money “just working,” you had to figure out something people needed and offer new services.

I don’t know exactly when he got into local politics, but what first moved him was prayer being taken out of schools. Once he decided to enter the fray, he was relentless in the local culture wars – and his adversaries have the scars, physical and psychological, to prove it. A first generation American, he acted in public forums with the confidence of someone whose family came over on the Mayflower. Abortion naturally vexed him, but since there was little he could do about that locally, he set up a shrine to Our Lady and prayed. Meanwhile, he was re-elected to the town council repeatedly for almost half a century.

His most famous fight involved a Christmas crèche on town property. After the lawyers and judges were through wrangling, a decision came down that a crèche could go up on the town green at Christmas – but only if someone was with it at all times. Why someone present made the display legal may be a puzzle to those of us untrained in the law. Presumably, opponents thought this requirement would be impossible to meet, given that almost everyone wants to be indoors with family and friends during the cold Christmas season. But Nello didn’t bother about that. He put up the crèche with his own money and sat by it in his van for days in the cold well into his eighties and nineties.

Though by the end he was quite well off, he lived all his life in the same modest house, which was fitted out with oddities in the garage and yard that were like some strange backcountry to a young boy. One I particularly remember – something I have not seen anywhere else in the world – was a product of the old paisan’s arts. Since he didn’t have a big backyard and wanted two fruit trees, early on he grafted a plum tree into a peach tree and it continued to produce both fruits for decades, one on one side, one on the other.

Something that only came out at his funeral is that in addition to his public defense of religion, charities, pro-life labors, and other works of mercy, he had fitted a cot and heater into a shed in his yard, and even in his last years was bringing homeless people there for the night. I have no doubt this violated multiple zoning laws, housing regulations, and basic federal requirements for professional caregivers. But that says more about how we’ve changed as a society in the way we help the poor than it does about anything else.

He was not without flaws, and an outsider watching him and his brothers playing a hand of pinochle or a game of bocce might be forgiven for calling the police – since we’ve lost the living experience of common people who enjoy arguing and even force themselves to argue face-to-face as an expression of pleasure in competing against each other.

Towards the end, he had the habit of saying to people, “May the Lord take a liking to you.” Amen, and requiescat in pace.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.