In 1951, Joe Calamita, who was raised humble and played hard on the streets of Paterson, N.J., received his draft notice as the Korean War revved up.
He was 20 and a couple of years out of Paterson’s East Side High School, which, badly deteriorated in structure and discipline decades later, was featured in the 1989 film, “Lean on Me,” starring Morgan Freeman as the hardline, uncompromising teacher-turned-principal Joe Clark, who turned the school around.
Calamita’s older brother, who had served in World War II in rugged battle zones in Italy, told him not to go into the Army. He said look at the Navy, the Coast Guard or the Air Force. Joe chose the latter, enlisting in the Air Force just before Thanksgiving in 1951.
Two years later, a young woman named Nina Diorio, who was raised in a strict Catholic family on a chicken farm in nearby Franklin Lakes, N.J., and had graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school, began working at the same place as Joe’s brother.
She saw a photograph of Joe and wrote him a letter. More letters would be exchanged over the next two years, until Joe was discharged in November 1955. She was three years younger than Joe and the two had never met.
In the spring following his discharge, in April 1956, they married. Joe remembers that Nina’s father was a member of the Knights of Columbus and that there were three priests at the wedding, just to make sure, he quips, that Joe’s embrace of Catholicism was intact. They needn’t have worried.
The couple stayed in New Jersey where they raised three children and Joe worked in construction, a member of the laborers’ union. But, in 1973, his brother-in-law, who ran the Palisades textile dyeing mill in Peace Dale, R.I., then called Palisades Industries, invited him to come up and offered him work in the mill.
Up the family came, first renting in Wakefield and then settling in Charlestown, where Joe found a house and 6½ wooded acres on Old Mill Road for the most agreeable price of $42,500.
Nina found work as a secretary at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston and Joe soon followed, working in the university greenhouses and grounds. He also had his own lawn-mowing business, tending to some 33 properties in and around Charlestown.
They both retired from URI in 1992 and bought a double-wide trailer in Largo, Fla., where they would spend half the year. They enjoyed five years of living there and in Charlestown, until Nina got sick.
She died in 2011 at age 76. As the spouse of a veteran, she was eligible to be buried in the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Exeter, a 280-acre open expanse of groomed grounds and memorials.
Every Sunday since her death, virtually without fail, Joe visits her gravesite. His name — SSGT Joseph Calamita USAF — is chiseled below hers, and when his time comes, the stone will be replaced to include the dates of his birth and death.
I asked to accompany him on a recent visit to the cemetery, where he stood, solitary and silent for several minutes, in prayer. He is a shortish and sturdy man of 88, a bit round-shouldered with age, with an easy smile and a puckish, happy laugh, and wearing his signature Rhode Island ball cap.
We then repaired, as he does religiously following each visit, to a donut shop a mile or two away on South County Trail. There, as I asked him questions about his life and he enjoyed his standard cruller and iced coffee, he said he had a question for me: “Why,” he asked, “are you interested in me?”
He wondered, he explained, because there were so many more interesting guys at the Westerly YMCA, where I got to know Joe a year or two ago and where he walks in a pool for exercise.
Because, I said to him, he is the most humble man I know; a fellow everyone at the Y, from the attendants at the front desk to the locker room regulars, likes; a man whose genial personality lights up many a day for us; whose rare sullen mood causes much concern among us and whose devotion to his wife is ennobling and endearing.
Joe did not have the easiest July but he has come through it. He learned he had a cancerous growth near his right eye that had to be removed, and just after being told that, he was rear-ended at a stop sign by a fellow driving a U-Haul. Though the other fellow was at fault, the company, Joe said, balked at covering the repairs to his car.
At his age, he didn’t need that aggravation. His mood reflected it. Friends in the locker room tried to cheer him. The hot spot on his face was removed, and his car is in a body shop near his home in Charlestown. He’s a bit more settled.
A lifelong union loyalist, Joe is a registered Democrat, though I’ve heard him grouse about politicians of whatever stripe, notably the sitting Rhode Island governor, Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, and what he bemoans as her war on state pensions.
Still, there is that genial demeanor. He said that wasn’t always his nature, but he learned later in life that it is one thing to stand up for yourself, and that being aggressive and quick to bark doesn’t help much of anything.
That, alas, is wisdom I’ve yet to fully appreciate, but I will say: “Amen, Joe. Amen.”
And thank you.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.