97 Year Old Frank Augustine recognized
Here’s a great story about Hoboken, NJ resident Frank Augustine, and his lifetime of achievements, as penned by his son Dennis. Enjoy (it’s a long read).
97 Year old Frank Augustine Recognized for Lifetime Achievements
“—A son’s tribute to his father”
by Dr. Dennis Augustine
My dad, Frank Augustine, whose name was legally changed from his former Italian name, Frances D’Agostino, was born in Pittston, Pennsylvania on January 5, 1917. He has been a New Jersey resident for almost 80 years.
In 1996 he became a life member of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Whenever he receives the latest issue of the CCC Journal he calls me to see if I got my copy. In time, I began to recognize how important a role the CCC experience played in his life.
But, first some back history. When my mother Maria passed away on Mother’s Day last year at the age of 88, it was a heart-felt loss. After all, mom was the matriarch of the family—the glue that held us all together.
After 66 years of marriage, dad lived alone and all the attention was focused on his well-being. We hired a live in caregiver named Margaret, a native of Ghana, to cook for him and assist him daily with his other home care needs. She has been a godsend to him and our family.
This makes it possible for him to continue living in the middle unit of a five-flat apartment building in Hoboken that he has owned and inhabited since 1952, which was of primary importance to him and my siblings, who live in neighboring towns.
A story to be told
I began calling him from my home in California every evening to see how he was doing and engage him in conversation. During many of these phone calls I felt an inner prompting to resume recording an oral history of his life I had begun documenting some years ago.
Dad was the son of coal miner and railroad worker named Michael, and his mom Frances was a homemaker, both of whom my siblings and I never met. Due to his mom’s chronic and debilitating illness, and his dad’s long work hours, his dad was ill equipped to take care of him and his siblings. Hence, they were given up for adoption.
As a result, dad spent his most tender years from the age of six through eighteen at St. Joseph’s Hospital Orphanage and St. Michael’s School for Boys in Scranton and Hoban Heights, Pennsylvania, respectively.
Dad is a survivor, and rarely engages in self-pity of any kind. On the contrary, whenever I asked him about his time at the orphanages, rather than telling some dark tales of woe, he said he was treated well by the Catholic nuns and had no complaints. He also expressed no ill will toward his father for giving him up for adoption. “There is always someone else worse off than me,” he would say regardless of the many challenges he has faced in life.
In 1934, he left the orphanage at St. Michael’s to live with my aunt Mary—his eldest sibling—who had become an R.N., and my uncle Carmine in Union City. A short time later he took his first job as an assistant cook at the historic former Clam Broth House near the Hudson River in Hoboken, N.J., for ten dollars a week including room and board.
Though dad has excellent recall for his advanced age, I had some difficulty matching up his dates of service in the army and maritime service with the rest of his life history. When I brought this to his attention during a recent visit, he simply got up from his desk and removed his army photo from his office wall.
He then unhooked the backing from the frame and a stack of Honorable Discharge papers magically appeared. With a satisfied look on his face and a twinkle in his eye he said, “I think this is what you’re looking for.” I was both an amused and surprised. “With record keeping like this who needs a computer,” I joked.
Traveling across the country
In September 1935 dad hitchhiked across the country to Texas to join his older brother Joe in the army, serving in the 23rd Infantry and later the 15th Field Artillery at Fort Sam Houston. He served as head cook and personal aide to Army Chaplain, Capt. William Walsh until September 15, 1938 when he was given an Honorable Discharge.
The country was racially divided back then, and he witnessed the hanging and tar and feathering of a young black man in the town square. He was repulsed by the inhumane cruelty of it all, calling it “disgusting,” but felt helpless to intervene, all the while thinking to himself: “These people are crazy.”
In 1939, at the recommendation of Captain Walsh he entered the order of the Maryknoll Fathers as a seminarian in Ossining, N.Y. He became a Catholic brother and was given the name of Brother Pius. Though he enjoyed the camaraderie of the other brothers and tending the animals at the farm that the seminary was located on, he decided that such an austere life was not a life for him. He returned to Hoboken to live with my uncle Anthony and aunt Kitty who lived near the late Frank Sinatra and his family before he became a famous crooner and Hoboken’s favorite son.
In July 1940, dad had heard that the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was hiring. It was a very popular job relief program established in the 1930s by FDR as part of his New Deal platform to keep kids off the streets and provide them with gainful employment. The song Happy Days Are Here Again was being played all over the airwaves back then and became Roosevelt’s campaign song for his successful 1932 presidential bid. The song is associated with the Repeal of Prohibition that occurred shortly after FDR’s election.
Dad enrolled in company 1296, Camp Salmon G-95 in Mackay, Idaho for a six-month term. While there he learned to protect and preserve plants, trees and forests but was later employed as a cook for the barracks of about 100 young men and their army reserve officers that were in charge of the camp.
The CCC was in transition during this time. Congress ended their independent status and transferred it to the Federal Security Agency along with the National Youth Administration, U.S. Employment Service, the Office of Education and the Works Progress Administration.
Dad was one of three million young men that would eventually participate in the program over the years. Young recruits were provided shelter, clothing, food and a small wage of thirty dollars a day, twenty-five of which would be sent to enrollee’s families. As an orphan dad’s stipend went to his younger sister Rose.
He loved the great outdoors, and meeting people from all over the country. “Everyone in the camp got along and respected one another,” he said.
Renowned as an army cook
When my dad first began his job as a cook, the mess sergeant gave him a cookbook and my dad laughed. “You know how to cook, he asked?” “Yes,” dad replied, “I was a cook in the army at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.” Somehow the sergeant must have missed the memo indicating that he actually had an experienced chef in his midst.
From that day forward, dad would make a list of food and other provisions he needed and the mess sergeant would place the order. They got along great.
Since there was no refrigeration in those days I asked how he kept the food from going bad. He then explained the method used at the time. “We dug a twelve by fourteen hole in the ground. Wood beams and shelves supported it and we placed straw between the beams and the dirt. The temperature was a consistent 40 degrees.”
He and another young enrollee he befriended caught white rabbits that were in abundance at the camp. In fact many of the young men caught, killed, and ate the wild rabbits. Not my dad. He never killed or cooked them in his kitchen for the camp. “I kept them as my pets,” he said. He later took in a small pet dog that was good company and slept atop his bed.
Lights went out in the barracks and in the cook’s quarters at 9 PM. But, this didn’t stop dad and his fellow cooks from staying up past their curfew. “We created our own light,” he said. He then added, “There was a creek behind our building and we rigged up a flywheel propelled by the moving water and connected it to a light socket and light bulb.”
Four months into his enrollment, orders came down to close the CCC camp. The barracks, mess hall, latrines and other wooden structures were set afire and burned to the ground. Dad recalled the aftermath of this very controversial undertaking. “I heard later from a friend that the Indian community near our camp were very upset,” he said. Then added, “They felt the CCC should have allowed them to use these structures for their personal use rather than going to waste.”
Dad had already been transferred to company 3101, camp F-100 in Gibbon, Oregon to complete his 6-month term. The camp was much smaller in size, housing about twenty-five to thirty members.
He was extended an invitation to re-enlist in the CCC for another six-month term. But, in January 1941, at the age of 24 he returned to military service, once again becoming a personal aide to his mentor Army Chaplain, Capt. William Walsh whom he befriended at Fort Sam Houston and was now stationed at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.
While there, dad also served as the head cook for the patients, servicemen, and military brass, before being honorably discharged in November 1942, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese and the eventual closing of the CCC program by Congress.
In 1943 he became the head cook for the U.S. Maritime Service in New London, Connecticut before returning to civilian life a year later.
In 1945 the Janssen’s Dairy in Hoboken hired him. He worked there with uncle Anthony and remained gainfully employed there for over 15 years.
In 1947 dad married my mom Maria Micalizzi who arrived from Roccalumera, Sicily as a war bride. Through the exchange of photos and letters a matchmaker friend of the family made the introduction. Four children followed beginning with me, my sister Josephine, and brothers Michael and Stephen.
The 50’s to retirement
In 1950, the year I was born, Maxwell House Coffee hired dad to lead the night shift maintenance team. The imposing plant with its towering smoke stacks sat on the banks of the Hudson River. The iconic “good to the last drop” neon coffee cup sign overhung the top of the building. On a windy day you could smell the coffee all over town—a fairly reliable indicator that it was going to rain.
In 1955 he took a course at Rutgers University in Shop Steward Training sponsored by The Institute of Management and Labor. Rather than take the position himself, he recommended one of his coworkers who became the first African American Shop Steward of the Department. He retired on June 26, 1975, the year I began my career as a podiatric physician and foot surgeon in San Jose, California.
In honor of his retirement and twenty-five years of loyal service, he was given a freestanding glass enclosed gold Atmos clock that told time by a circular perpetual motion pendulum.
In 1984, during a visit with my mom to our new California home, dad gifted the clock to me as a housewarming gift. Thirty-eight years later it still sits regally on a library shelf of our family room above our TV where dad had envisioned it being placed.
The Atmos clock was his most expensive personal possession. It represented years of hard work to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. I was deeply moved by his act of generosity and still am to this day. It was symbolic of the passage of time from one generation to another.
Dad took full advantage of his retirement. He collected stamps, gold and silver coins, loved to garden and chat with people from his neighborhood while sitting on his front stoop or from his second story window.
Never wanted publicity – just loving life
It is interesting to note that though my dad never sought publicity, his works and passionate pursuits were occasion noticed by the media just in the process of living his life.
For example, when he was 71 years old, a local reporter impressed with my father’s coveted street front garden did a story about him called The Urban Gardener. Formerly a homemade winemaker hobbyist he used recycled half-cut wine barrels to grow his wide assortment of colorful plants. Passersby came to him for gardening tips and he would often make their day by giving them a cutting from one of his plants.
While most men his age were content with sitting at home watching TV or playing cards, dad was installed as Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus at the age of 79 for two terms from 1996 to 1998.
While holding this position he raised money to buy specialized high-tech helmets to assist local firefighters see through heavy smoke and donated funds to the local police association for the purchase of bulletproof vests, and also organized funding dinners and activities for the local senior citizen center.
He was also a member volunteer of the BPO Elks Lodge No. 74 and was named “Elk of the Year” in 1982 for his elaborate Christmas decorating skills and designs, much of which is still utilized to this day. He is the their oldest living life member.
Boy Scouts his “true calling”
But, above all, his true calling was the Boy Scouts of America. Beginning in the early nineteen-sixties, he was a boy scout leader for over twenty-five years welcoming young kids from all backgrounds and all creeds.
Forever curious and young at heart, I believe scouting more than anything brought him back to his youth and in particular his time with the CCC. Camping, love of the great outdoors, living in harmony with nature, hiking the trails, swimming, mutual cooperation and food preparation. All the elements of the CCC experience he so cherished were being relived. It seemed to merge perfectly with the adage of the Boy Scouts slogan to “Be Prepared.” The CCC had prepared him well to help his young scouts to live up to their motto.
His troop was recognized for receiving the most merit badges and having the most Eagle scouts. He did what he could to empower these young boys to reach for stars. If they were feeling under confident about applying for a certain merit badge or needed help, he made sure they received it. He was simply passing it forward.
During camp outings and Boy Scout Jamborees, Dad walked softly and carried a big stick. A hand carved cedar walking stick with his initials on it to be more precise. There was even a folk song named after him called the Augustine Song and a legend was born.
Dennis Demes, a young protégé and friend of my dad’s who would later become a scout leader himself told me during a recent phone conversation: “If it wasn’t for your dad’s help I would never have become an eagle scout. He made a big difference in many kids lives.”
It was Demes, currently an academic dean at St. Vincent de Paul in Florida who wrote the lyrics of the Augustine Song and played it on his guitar at various scout outings. “As far as using the cedar stick,” Demes added, “he merely waved it around and gave some kids an affectionate tap.” It was all done in good fun. As a token of his friendship, Demes told me that dad gifted him with a hand carved cedar stick with his own initials on it that he still has to this day. Unable to find a suitable replacement, the troop he so loved disbanded and he retired from his post in 1989 at the age of 72.
In 2010 Rev. Alex Santora, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church wrote an article about dad called Standing Among Saints on Hudson in his column in the Jersey Journal called Faith Matters. The focus was how dad tended a year-round religious Catholic shrine in his storefront bay window—encased in copper framing—for over 30 years.
Santora wrote that he had passed the shrine a “thousand times” until he discovered its owner. He also cited dad’s involvement in the FDR-sponsored CCC jobs program in Idaho and Oregon in the article. He retold the story of the shrine at my mother’s funeral mass service last May and it was at that moment I was struck with a melancholy wave of emotion.
Up until then, I took dad’s public display of faith largely for granted, an eccentricity if you will. I now saw his taking the initiative to be a keeper of the shrine in the context of a lifetime of service and good stewardship of all the activities he involved himself in—both religious and secular.
How Dad’s history finally became documented
Some months later, I wrote Rev. Santora and sent him the completed oral history of my father’s accomplishments that for the most part went largely unnoticed. I expressed a strong desire to honor him in some way while he was still alive. It was a race against the clock to get the recognition that he deserved and to let him know his legacy had not been forgotten.
Santora promptly wrote back saying he thought it was a good idea and provided me the contact information of community leaders from the Council on Aging, as well as influential public officials at the local, county and state level that I could call upon.
What began as a simple oral history for posterity sake laid the foundation for dad becoming recognized for his lifetime achievements. Everyone I contacted agreed that dad should be honored for his many years of service to his community and his country.
Catherine Macchi of the County Council on Aging who was very instrumental in coordinating these efforts wrote, “needless to say, we are all delighted to applaud your Father’s ‘Legacy of Love.’” I reflected on her words and realized she was right. His entire life was about love of nature and discovering the joy of giving to others.
In due course dad was officially recognized publicly with a Senate Resolution sponsored by state senator Brian Stack; and a laudatory resolution at the county level by the N.J. Board of Chosen Freeholders.
Of the ceremonies honoring my dad, the NJ Freeholders meeting, chaired by Anthony Romano, former Captain of the Hoboken Police Department was the most formal. It was held in council chambers in Jersey City. Each of the nine county Freeholders introduced by the clerk gave high praise about my dad’s achievements, cast their vote for the resolution and it was recorded in the minutes by the board stenographer. The one that stands out the most was by E. Junior Maldonado who said: “Thank you for your service. I have to say that if we could find more individuals in the world like you, we would have a lot less problems. I vote proudly, yes.”
Dad took all the attention and photo-op sessions with these political stalwarts of the community in stride and with grace. He appeared with them in all the local newspapers, and to quote artist Andy Warhol, enjoyed his “fifteen minutes of fame.” All involved in the process enjoyed it as well; and, why not, it was the local feel good story of 2013.
Upon hearing the good news about my dad, my cousin Rachelle Ceglie whose late father, Anthony, my beloved godfather and was housed in the orphanage with my dad wrote, “this is totally awesome. I am so happy for him.”
She added, “Yes, they were orphans, with no regrets each and every one of them. In spite of their hardships and lack of formal education, they survived with their heads up and moved on, married, entered the military, secured jobs and raised families. I am so very proud of them…”
After learning and reflecting on my dad had been honored, the coordinating nurse from Promised Care wrote,
“I have a confession to make: I am in love with your father. His strength and his outlook at life is an admiration to me…
I tell your father’s story to those who blame their circumstances for their failures. I have a great story to tell to inspire them about their future. It begins like this: ‘there was an orphan boy who grew up in various homes…But the most important point is what the boy has accomplished and his contentment with life at his age….’”
Dad had beaten the odds and made a life for himself in spite of being abandoned by his parents due to circumstances beyond his and their control. The lyrics from the Beatles’ John Lennon and Paul McCartney song Day in the Life came to mind: “I read the news today oh boy, about a lucky man who made the grade…”
To complete my dad’s story, the only thing I had left to do was to obtain a copy of his enrollment documents during his time at the CCC. This was the only personal service record he didn’t possess and wanted access to them. Thanks to the Joan Sharpe, CCC Journal editor I was directed to a link on the CCC website that contained a more user friendly Records Request Form from the National Archives. I promptly filled it out, remitted the application fee and my dad’s file was located on microfiche and mailed to me in due course.
To my utter delight, it contained glowing reviews by all the supervising personal he served under: “Excellent work, good attitude, conscientious, and good natured.” It confirmed all that I had come to know about him and was confirmed by his friends and acquaintances. Dad had never seen his file and was tickled pink to discover what his CCC camp over-seers thought of him and his work.
Ever the Optimist, he has recently renewed his membership to AARP, has gone back to attending some meetings at his local Elk’s lodge, orders gifts and home supplies on sale from mail order catalogs, memorabilia from the CCC Journal and thanks to Rev. Santora receives the Communion in his home every two weeks by a Eucharistic Minister who enjoys being regaled by his stories of the old Hoboken. Finally, he is still filling out the Publishing Clearing House forms hoping to win that illusive million-dollar prize in spite of the odds stacked against him.
“I may be old,” he says with a smile, “but I’m not dead.”
Thank you dad for the privilege of allowing me to tell your story. In your honor, I offer you the Italian toast: “Cent Anni,” that for the benefit of the CCC community reading this article means, “May you live to be a 100.”
Postscript: Anyone wishing to contact Frank Augustine may write to him at 156 5th Street, Hoboken, N.J. He welcomes hearing from you.
About the author:
Dr. Dennis Augustine is the eldest of four siblings, Josephine, Michael and Stephen. He resides in Saratoga, California with his wife Cecile of 37 years. They have two children, Jason, 33 and Michelle, 27. Dennis is a retired minimal invasive foot surgeon, author of several books including Invisible Means of Support and Gifts from Spirit, A Skeptic’s Path, is a worldwide traveler, yoga enthusiast and practices Insight Meditation. He is also a former member of the Saratoga Community of Painters and played the saxophone for the Saratoga Community Band.