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Thursday, Sept. 11, 2003 02:20 pm

Il Professore

The life and times of “Gentleman” Joe Bonefeste

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Joe Bonefeste's a true gentleman. The former Sangamon County treasurer is such a wellspring of enthusiasm, optimism, good humor, and goodwill--you can't help but feel ennobled by his presence. Though he's small of stature, his voice is clear and strong, and he commands respect. With a quick step, the 81-year-old sings out greetings and felicitations, whether it's on the steps outside church, in the weight room of the YMCA, or at Tony's Food Mart, where he buys his ciabatto. He has such an aura of kindly paterfamilias that it's difficult to envisage him as a strict disciplinarian, though he was a school principal for more than 30 years before going into politics.

In the spring of 2002, he decided to not seek reelection to a fifth term in office. He was 79 years old and ready for a change. He was a poor candidate for retirement--an idea he dismisses with a contemptuous wave of the hand--so he rose to meet yet another challenge in a lifetime full of challenges. In a manner so matter-of-fact that he could be describing a trip to the dry cleaners, Bonefeste relates how he heard of a vacancy on the faculty of Millikin University from a friend who wanted to take the job but couldn't. "So I went over to the university, presented my credentials, and was hired, see?" He neglects to mention his own academic achievements, having earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and graduate degrees from both the U. of I. and Illinois State University. The walls of his office nearly groan under the weight of diplomas, awards, and certificates of merit.

Bonefeste is currently in his fifth semester as a professor of Italian at Millikin. He's found teaching at the university level to be both stimulating and rewarding. "I love it," he says. "Love it." He admits he's immersed himself in activity since 1996, when he lost Pat, his wife of more than 50 years. Keeping busy has helped assuage the sadness of her passing. "We had so much compatibility it was unbelievable," he says. "We were very, very, very close."

He's had a thirst for education his whole life. He's spent the last two summers in Italy--as a student--to improve his language skills to make him a better teacher. In 2002, he studied in Urbania, in the Marche region, and he spent this past summer in Siena. "I perceive myself as an ambitious student of the Italian language," he says. "I have spent a lifetime with this language and I am still not fulfilled."

Bonefeste's most recent trip was his 17th. "I love the food, the wine, the culture, the music, the topography, the philosophy of life, the art, the customs and the traditions," he says. "Having lived there, and having gone to school there, can only enhance my teaching and my ability to share the beauty of the culture and the language with my students. I want to motivate them." He jabs his finger in the air. "I want to motivate them!"

Born in Butler, Pennsylvania, Bonefeste was the first son of Italian immigrants from the Calabria region of southern Italy--"the toe of the boot." His father came over in 1912, his mother nine years later. They were from the same village, Ardore, and they remained old-world people with old-world ways. Italian was spoken in the home. Bonefeste's father worked in a coal mine.

"This is important--write it down," Bonefeste says, as his voice quavers and his eyes moisten. "My parents were both illiterate. They had no education at all. Neither of them attended a day of school in their lives. They had no education whatsoever. They couldn't write their names. My sister signed their checks. But they taught us values, good values. Respect. Respect for family, for church, the Ten Commandments, honesty, the importance of work."

Bonefeste had two sisters and a brother, and he was expected to contribute financially when he reached the age of 12. In the depths of the Great Depression, his father begged a local immigrant shoemaker named Di Giacomo to accept his son as an apprentice. His father's fervent wish was for his son to escape the mine by learning the cobbler's trade, so Bonefeste began working--for no pay. When he showed that he was trustworthy, reliable, and could repair shoes and wait on customers, he began earning $5 a week. This meager wage, he says, benefited his family tremendously. He worked every day after school and a full day on Saturdays--8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. When the school term ended, he worked full-time--six days a week--for the same pay. He was glad for the job.

He was a decent student and began playing trumpet in the band at St. Michael's grade school--this was the beginning of his lifelong love of music. When he entered Butler High School, he began to work in a restaurant, where he could make more money. But after graduation, Bonefeste felt stuck. He says he was a young man without a compass.

"I was like a weed--I was just growing. I had no real direction. After all, my parents . . . they couldn't check my school papers, my study habits. I had a desire to go to college, but I had no direction."

A friend suggested he visit the registrar at Slippery Rock Teacher's College, which is 18 miles from Butler. The registrar, sensing Bonefeste's strong desire to learn, enrolled him immediately. He began his studies and continued to work in the restaurant.

"This was in the early days of WWII. I volunteered to be in the army because by volunteering I could stay in school until they called the volunteers. When the army called, in 1943, I already had one and a half years of study completed."

Bonefeste finished basic training at Camp Wheeler, Georgia. All the men there were given aptitude tests, and he was identified as a candidate for language school. He was sent to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study Italian. It was there, Bonefeste says, that he learned the language well and discovered that what he had been speaking was a southern Italian dialect.

"I was so naïve--I thought I could speak Italian," he says laughing. "But I had excellent instruction there. Excellent."

He became an interpreter for 600 Italian soldiers in Newport News, Virginia. These soldiers were among the scores of Italians who had joined the Allied cause and worked in American ports. "They were called co-belligerents," says Bonefeste, "and they wore the same uniform as GIs, except they had a green shoulder patch that said Italy." Working with these soldiers, he says, was an opportunity to learn Italian in depth.

Recalling these days, he begins gesticulating wildly. Across the table, he appears to be signaling touchdown. No, make that an out at second base. No, safe.

"Oooohhhhh, oooohhhh, oh, yes, my language skills improved. And I loved it. They were good people. I would have accompanied them back to Italy at war's end. But while I was attached to them, the Army Transportation Corps was formed, and a strong appeal was made for transportation officers. We were being robbed blind by our own men. I didn't want to leave the Italians, but I saw a chance to improve myself. I applied to Officer Candidate School, I was accepted, and 17 weeks later I was a lieutenant stationed in New Orleans. I was the eyes and ears of the army on ships going across the Pacific."

Upon his discharge from the service in 1945, Bonefeste returned to the University of Illinois, seeking a bachelor's degree.

"The GI Bill was my kicker," he says. "I had a desire to do better than my parents, and I knew I could. Our government gave me the opportunity."

While there, he played trumpet in the "Marching Illini" band and with the Champaign Symphony Orchestra. He briefly considered a career as a professional musician. But then fate intervened over Thanksgiving weekend, 1945. His friend Fulvio Petrilli invited him to come to Springfield, and Bonefeste gladly accepted. When they arrived in Springfield, Fulvio's cousin, Pat Petrilli, was there to meet them.

Again the finger jab. "This is important! When I first laid my eyes on her, I was convinced she was to be my wife. I saw her before I even got off the train. First time!" His voice breaks. "She told that story her whole life." He pauses, taking a breath to regain his composure. "So I started coming to Springfield."

Pat's family was a lot like Bonefeste's--immigrant parents, very old world, very Catholic, Italian spoken in the home. He was welcomed like a son, a courtship ensued, and he married Pat in 1946. They lived with her parents for eight years, and both of their sons were born there. Pat worked at Sangamo Electric Company, and Joe accepted a job as school principal in Greenview. The arrangement allowed him to take extension classes in Springfield, and in 1951 he earned a master's degree in education. Grandma and Grandpa Petrilli looked after the boys.

Sundays were memorable, he says. "A big Italian dinner always followed church, and it was a day of visiting. Family, see? Family!" His parents sometimes visited Springfield and Pat's parents sometimes visited Butler. "They would cook together, eat together, play cards together. Those were happy times."

After earning his master's degree, Bonefeste accepted the principal's job at Hazel Dell school. Later he'd be principal at Laketown and Dubois schools as well. He became deeply involved in his parish church, St. Cabrini. He spent 35 years as a performer and manager with the Springfield Municipal Band. He played with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra and various dance bands. Even today, he performs with a group called the Capitol Band. During his summer in Urbania, he was privileged to play with a local band.

"I stay busy," he says. "I only get depressed when I realize how much more there is to learn. It's overwhelming. I travel. I'm going to Montreal for a week, to a big Italian wedding, of course." He smiles broadly.

He's already looking forward to another summer in Italy, though he's not exactly sure where it will be spent. He says it will be hard to beat his summer in Siena. The Sienese, he explains, are intensely proud of their city. He spent weekends visiting Verona and Florence, going to the opera, museums, concerts, and wineries. "Yes," he chuckles, "they do love their wine."

But right now Bonefeste is concentrating on teaching. "If I had to live my life over again, I wouldn't change it a bit," he says. "I had a lovely wife and I enjoy my heritage and my profession. I worked hard and I wouldn't change anything at all. I've learned this in life: people are beautiful. No matter what color or religion or ethnicity, people are genuinely good.

"I love what I do," he says, jabbing his finger into the air. "My parents would be proud. Proud."

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