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Mario Di Leo, The North Ender Who Saved My Life

38174_135093073187736_2584281_nI remember him as a handsome man in suite coat and tie. I remember him always smiling and always kind. I remember him as the man who saved my life.

Many of you will remember him in your own way, but I’m sure the thoughts will just a special as mine are. I’m referring here to Mario Di Leo, a man who helped to make the North End the wonderful place that it was when I was growing up.

I knew Mario from the Shaw House and the Summer Day Camp. I remembered him well from the latter because it was during a day trip to Boxford Camp in about 1967 that I would have drowned if it were not for Mario.

Travel Camp had gone to Boxford Camp that day, and we were at Boxford Pond. I was 9 years old and did not know how to swim. Still, I decided that I would like to walk into the pond until the water reached my neck. I had no idea of the sudden drop that the pond makes at the end of the docks. I remember walking until my feet suddenly lost contact with the ground, of trying to turn around to get back – and then going under the water. By kicking my legs and thrashing my arms, I managed to pull my head to the surface twice – only to sink down again each time, gulping and breathing lake water. I came up for a third time, tried to cry for help, and then went down again, and into darkness. The next thing I knew I was laying on Mario’s lap, kids shouting all around me, and coughing up water. Mario was reassuring me and everyone that I was all right. I was confused as to what happened, but I knew I was OK. I knew it because I could see it in Mario’s kind eyes and assuring smile. They told me that I would be OK.

Mario had not pulled me out of the water. But he had spotted me going down for that third time, and alerted the life guard. If he had not seen me, I would not be here to write this.

The rest of the day was a blur. I remember that Mario never left my side. He walked with me back to the school bus, sat with me during the ride back to the North End, and walked me to my grandfather’s apartment on Charter Street, where my family always had dinner. My mother and father were surprised to see Mario at the door with me. “We almost lost him,” I remember Mario telling them, but not much else. I know he told them what had happened, and I know my parents thanked him.

I continued going to Travel Camp that summer, thought my mother would not let me go back to Boxford or to any trip that involved swimming. In fact, it took me over a year of arguing with her to allow me to finally go back into the war. And the first thing I did was to learn how to swim. I was not going to let that happen to me a second time.

Mario left Shaw House and Travel Camp about a year or so later, and a long time passed before I saw him again on March 18 of 2009.

I have Carl Ameno to thank for this. Carl knew about my historical research on the North End and he suggested that I talk to Mario. I had not forgotten Mario of course, but I had come to think of him as part of my past, as someone who was part of my distant childhood memories.

Now, here I was speaking with him again, talking about the North End, about my work, our families, and much else. We spent about four or five hours talking that first day, and since then we have met and talked many times. Mario has helped me to understand the North End in the ’30s and ’40s, and he had great insight into William Foote Whyte’s “Street Corner Society,” important parts of which involved the North Bennet Street Industrial School. In the course of our discussions, I got to learn something about Mario’s life as well. I’d like to share some of what I learned.

Mario Di Leo was born on January 2, 1928. His family lived on North Street at the time, and later moved to Moon Street, Charter Street, and then Prince Street. His parents came from Ribera, Sicily. His father traveled between Italy and the United States twice, before settling here in 1921. With him on this final trip came his young bride, Mario’s mother.

His father operated a variety store for a time, and then opened a produce re-packing company, called Puritan Packing, in the Mercantile Building. His mother took care of Mario and five brothers and three sisters. Later, she worked in a clothing factory to save money for a trip to visit Italy.

Mario went to the Eliot School, and like many of us, he went to the Shaw House after school. He learned printing at both the Eliot and North Bennet, a skill he would put to use later in his life. During some summers, he attended Maplewood Caddy Camp and Camp Parker (run by the North End Union). Mario’s leadership and initiative were already evident at 10 years old when he helped to organize a Cub Scout Troop at the North Bennet. Mario recalls the following story with a smile.

Since the Cub Scouts required parental involvement, the parents of the younger boys were invited to the first meeting, where Mario and one of the Scout commissioners explained the program to them. After their lengthy presentation, not one parent asked a question; silence. Then, one woman stood up and said:

“You made a nice presentation but these people don’t understand. They only speak Italian.” Mario had a solution to the problem. He spent the next few days preparing pamphlets in Italian to explain the program.

Mario’s family left the North End when he was 14 years old, moving to Medford. However, like many others who made this move, Mario and his family returned to the North End regularly – and Mario remained active at the North Bennet Street School, continuing to work with the Scout programs there. One man who took notice of his leadership was John T. Dexter, Mr. “D,” the soon-to-be Director of the Shaw House.

At 18, Mario entered Suffolk University. He received a B.A. in Journalism in 1950. He wrote for the Suffolk Journal – he covered a debate in which future President John F. Kennedy participated – and he was Editor of the Journal’s Sports section. Shortly after he graduated, the Korean War broke out. Mario received his draft notice in the summer of 1950, and six months later, on Friday, December 13, he was inducted into the U.S. Army. He served in Germany with the Second Armored Division, the “Hell on Wheels” Division.

Throughout his service, Mario received letters from Mr. D, who wrote to keep him apprised of what was going on at the school. And when Mario was discharged in November of 1952, he went to thank Mr. D. for writing. It was then that Mr. D told Mario that he was in need of an assistant, and offered the job to him. “It doesn’t pay much,” Mr. D said. “It pays $1,200 a year.” Mario talked it over with his father who told him “If you like it, take it.” Mario went back to Mr. D and accepted the position as Assistant Director under the condition that he would try it for a month – “a month that became fifteen years.”

Mario married Rose Marie Scotti in 1955. During the same year, Mr. Jacobi, the Director of NBSIS, asked Mario if he would like to be the Director of Admissions to the school’s Vocational Program. Jacobi felt that only felt that Mario was suited to the job because of his leadership and because of his knowledge of printing. But he also knew that the increase in salary that came with the position would also help the newly married Mario.

However, despite the advantage in pay the position would give, Mario hesitated because was he was not familiar with the vocational program. To rectify this, he decided to do some research on the vocational program. As he learned more, he read more, and his study of the vocational program became a study of the entire history of the North Bennet School. He eventually took the position as Director of Admissions, and then applied what he had learned about the school by writing a series of articles on its history and programs. These articles were published as a series in 1963 in the “Italian News,” a North End newspaper. They remain an important source of historical information on the North Bennet Street Industrial School.

Mario served as the Director of Boxford Camp from 1955 to 1960, and Director of the Travel Camp from 1960 until 1968. During these same years Mario helped to coordinate a monthly meeting of the various social and health agencies in the North End, and he was the creator of the “Christmas Clearing House” effort to collect toys, money, food, and clothing for the needy. One year, he recalls, the owner of a store on Salem Street agreed to accept Christmas coupons for clothing and receive reimbursement later. A woman who received a large Christmas package, decided to give it to the nuns of St. Leonard’s Convent, because she felt they had a greater need for it. And a politician made a donation of $1,000 dollars under the condition that he should remain anonymous. Mario feels that his name should now be revealed: John Sears. In 1968, and in clear recognition of his leadership, Mario was asked to be the Coordinator for “Summer Thing” in the North End, which he did from that year until 1972.

1968 was also the year that Mario left the North Bennet to accept a position to teach printing at the East Junior High School in Watertown;, and then seven later to teach the same at Watertown High School. It was his early training in printing at the Eliot and North Bennet, which once again helped to qualify him for the job. And as was the case with his work in the North End, Mario made a difference in Watertown. He instituted the change from offset to letterset printing; he re-started the High School Newspaper; and he created an annual book called “Word Painter,” in which student essays and stories were published. Mario taught printing at Watertown High until his retirement in 1992.
Mario told me that he enjoyed every minute working with the kids of the North End, and he was especially happy that he could use his own experience of growing up there to guide the generations after him.

I know that this was important to me. The North End was in truth a wonderful place with many wonderful people – but we all know that it had its rough edges too. Mario, as part of Shaw House, was a big help in pulling a lot of us along the right path. I’m not forgetting Mr. D here – he did much for us as well, including, after all, bringing Mario in as his assistant, and in recognition of Mario’s special place as an Italian American who had grown up in the neighborhood. Mr. D made a difference for us, but for me, Mario did so even more. Not just because he had saved my life, but because I knew he was somehow more like me, and he understood what it was like to come from the North End.
I really can’t put what I mean into words – just as I cannot always put into words what the North End meant and still means to me. So, I’ll conclude with something Mario told me:

“Anybody who was born and lived in the North End shares that special experience we had. No matter where you go in life there is always a flashback to a time when you were living in the North End. It seems as if we all share the same characteristics. Once a North End always a North Ender.”

Mario, you are one of the North Enders who made that experience as special as it was. Thank you.
To contact Mario, send an email to: mariodileo@verizon.net

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.

4 comments

  1. victor passacantilli

    Jim,
    It was nice of you to take the time to honor Mario’s career and life. I enjoyed reading it.
    Stay well,
    Victor

  2. Great story about Mario,all my brothers attended the Shaw House (6) of us,he was the kindest,patient man I ever knew.There was a lot of testesterone running around that club not to mention some tough kids to handle he did it we’ll.

  3. When I read that Mr.Di Leo “enjoyed working with the kids” I was surprised to hear him quoted as saying that. Surprised because when I was a student at Watertown High School in the early 1980’s his behavior seemed to indicate the opposite. At that time in his life he displayed a short temper, and would frequently resort to physical means to discipline students.

    Other than what appeared to be a poor temperament, and lack of self control, he does have an impressive biography.

    Possibly some more good works by Mario can outweigh those lesser ones.