Don D’Amato, the official historian for the City of Warwick and respected but unofficial historian of every other city and town in Rhode Island, died last Friday. D’Amato was a friend and columnist for the Warwick Beacon and the Cranston Herald. He was 80 years old on Dec. 29 of last year.
“He has been the official historian for the city since Flaherty was mayor,” said current Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian. “He remained so through Charlie Donovan, Lincoln Chafee and me. That’s about 25 years of service to our city.”
Avedisian said D’Amato did more that tell stories about the old days but actually helped keep the city’s records and archives right.
“But one of the best things he did and, I think he really enjoyed doing, was getting the history of all our churches and places of worship and communities of faith on record,” said Avedisian. “He told us where we had been, what we had been doing and where we were going.”
Since the paper learned of Don’s passing, many people have called offering their condolences to us and to his family. His daughter, Terry Spencer, offered the most touching and consoling comfort of them all.
“Of course, he had lots of friends and people respected him as a teacher and as a historian,” said Spencer. “He taught at Warwick Vets for 30 years, and then at CCRI and Johnson & Wales. He got his master’s at URI and everyone respected his newspaper work.”
Many more people knew him as a supportive and reliable source of strength as they struggled with their weakness. He was, as many would recognize, a good friend of Bill W.
“He was a generous friend and a great father,” said Spencer. “There will be so many, many people who will miss him.”
Along with her personal thoughts about her father, Spencer sent us Don’s own notes for his own biography, which, once again, shows that we can, if only once more, count on Don to give us an authoritative take on history. Here is Don in his own words, with, as usual, our reserved right to add our own notes, clarifications and corrections and remove all undue modesty Don may have let into his narrative:
“My father tells me it was very cold and that there was snow and ice on the ground,” D’Amato wrote many years ago.
It was also around the time that the full effects of the Great Depression were being felt in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. “My father was working as a ropemaker at the American Cord and Twine Co. and he had gone from full time to part time. My mother had been working at a candy factory in Cambridge but had stopped when pregnant with me.”
The hard times forced the D’Amatos to move in with relatives. For young Don, it was the best of times.
“My aunt Evelyn, seven years older than I, used to rush home from school to play with me and my Uncle Fiore, nine years older, was idol of my life and my hero,” Don recalled. “As the oldest grandson and the only infant in the family at the time, I was lavished with attention and felt safe and cherished.”
Don’s memories of his father as a babysitter hint at why Don wanted to be a writer.
“Once he quieted me down he would tell me these magnificent stories,” wrote Don. “Some from “Arabian Nights,” others from Italian folklore and many…he made up. He was a great storyteller, and soon I looked forward to the stories and even eager to see my mother leave for the movies.”
It’s no surprise when Don tells us he resented not being taken to the World’s Fair in 1939 and no surprise to learn he liked to ride around in his uncles’ cars. It was during a Sunday night drive that he learned of Pearl Harbor.
“It was a very emotional time,” wrote Don. “The women were crying and the men very angry. I remember them saying that nothing would ever be the same again, and they were right.”
Don remembered the time as not his proudest moments.
“I was a house angel and street devil,” he confessed.
He joined a street gang, formally called the Parker A.C. (Athletic Club) but affectionately the "Parker Slobs" and became best friends with the leader of the gang and began to smoke and swear.
“I seemed to be in training to be a gangster,” he confessed.
He also confessed to be a little too fond of boxing, of hurting bullies and resenting people with talents other than his.
“I must have been jealous of Ray "Muzzy" Santese, as he was an excellent piano player,” wrote D’Amato. “Once I grabbed his hand and bent his fingers back. He was appalled, as he thought I would break his fingers. He pleaded for me to stop, and after awhile I did.”
Don was also becoming a skillful boxer and described the peak of his boxing career as a teenager.
“I fought this tall, skinny black kid at the Copley Plaza Hotel. We fought in a real ring with a huge light over us. Very professional, I thought. Crusher Casey, a well-known wrestler, was the referee. We fought to a draw. I know I hurt him, but he was taller and had a greater reach. A combination of being hit on the head and the bright lights gave me a terrible headache. After we went out to eat and I was visibly not feeling well. My father said, ‘Don, maybe you should try baseball.’ I agreed, and that was the end of my boxing career.”
It was the 1940s, and the term juvenile delinquent was in vogue and that was how D’Amato described himself.
“By the time I was 16, I was hanging around Jimmy’s pool room and then to the Napoli for pizza and beer,” wrote D’Amato, who was feeling the tug of another sensibility.
“I already had ideas that someday I would write the Great American Novel. I was an avid reader and Mr. Hughes was telling me that I could write well and should pursue a college career.”
Apparently, Mr. Hughes did more than encourage him, as D’Amato entered college.
“I loved Northeastern University,” wrote D’Amato. “I was amazed at how much more stimulating it was than high school. Fortunately, thanks to Mr. Hughes, I had an Edwards scholarship for poor boys of Boston and a free education if I stayed on the dean's list.”
The self-proclaimed delinquent quickly realized that it took real effort to get along in academia, even for the subjects you loved, like history with a brilliant lecturer.
“Not long after he gave us a short quiz and I flunked it,” he recalled. “I was amazed. One of the kids in the class told me that my problem was that I didn't take notes. I had no idea. By the end of the semester, I not only took notes but I copied them on the typewriter and went over them. The result was that I went from an F to an A in the class and my essays attracted the attention of Dr. Butts. I was on my way to being a historian. Wow.”