By Bob Smiley and Mike Colantonio
Frankford lost an icon last year on January 24th when Lorenzo Della Valle passed away. He was as much a fixture on Frankford Avenue as the El. He held court in his barber shop every day or stood outside in front chatting on the sidewalk. Everybody knew him who passed that way either as one of his customers or as that barber who waved as they passed by. He was small in stature but a giant of a man.
He was born in Abruzzi, Italy and came to America in July of 1956 with his father Giuseppe looking for work. After World War II, jobs were very difficult to find and Giuseppe’s brother Nick was already in Philadelphia in Frankford. They left Naples on the most modern up to date ship in the Italian fleet and what should have been a pleasant trip turned into a nightmare when the Andrea Doria was hit in a collision by the Swedish ship Stockholm.
There was chaos after the collision in which 34 mostly Italian immigrants were killed. The list of the ship made it impossible to load passengers into the lifeboats. The people had to climb down rope ladders from the side of the ship. There were ships nearby that were coming to the rescue but at some point in time Giuseppe and Lorenzo decided to take their chances with the sea and jumped into the darkness of the Atlantic. The July warmth spared them long enough to be picked up by a passing lifeboat and they arrived in New York safely.
The Monday after he stepped onto American soil, Lorenzo went with his uncle Nick to apply for a construction job. Nick had told him to act like he could speak english but the boss figured out that he was just nodding his head and said no and told his uncle that he should come back when he could speak English. Lorenzo was angry at that and said when he could speak english, he would be back for the boss’ job. A few months later though he went into the barbering trade which ended his job search for the next 54 years.
He started out working in a shop for another barber, and then found the place on Frankford Avenue near Harrison. It was a big step to go out on his own but he took the risk. He did all the renovations in getting the place ready to open himself. Soon he was open and the business thrived. He was the only “Barber shop” in the area at that time to style women’s hair. He won numerous competitions over the years and taught all of those who came to work with him his trade, weather they wanted to or not.
In the years that followed, Giuseppe and Lorenzo brought over Lorenzo’s mother and his brother Ralph and his family who had emigrated to South America. He learned english quickly and lived in Frankford. He had a talent for doing home remodeling and he practiced that on one project or another whenever he could.
One day in 1968 Lorenzo met the love of his life. Tina was a struggling single mother of Joseph, Michael and Mark who had been abandoned by her husband. When they married the next year, Lorenzo became Dad to the boys. Step father never entered his vocabulary. He was old world strict but always fair. They lived in a house in Mayfair and Lorenzo went to work remodeling. They were soon blessed with a daughter, Gabriella. They had a happy, stable family life, enjoyed trips to the shore and Lorenzo and Tina loved to go out and they were the life of a party on the dance floor. Tragedy struck in the form of a hit run driver one Summer day in 1974. He took Tina’s life and nearly killed Gabriella. Gabriella recovered and Lorenzo soldiered on holding the family together through it all. The other kids were grown and there was no reason for Lorenzo to stay in that house with a Mother in-law and everything else. He chose to stay and keep the family together even though the love of his life was gone.
Over the years, the kids grew up and made lives of their own. Mark, his youngest son, died in his early 30s. Lorenzo became a grandfather. Gabriella married and resettled in Italy where she is a teacher. He kept in close contact with Gabriella by weekly phone calls and the rest of the family would gather together for Sunday dinners Italian style. He loved to cook and tell stories and he loved to ride horseback through Pennypack park. He taught the horse Italian and in the beginning it was a battle between the two as to who was more stubborn, the horse was no match for my dad (Lorenzo).
He never married again but in later years he had a “lady friend” and they would sometimes ride down to the shore on a sunday afternoon. But nobody would take the place of his beloved Tina.
He finally left the shop for the last time in January of 2015 when the pulmonary disease that he had been stubbornly battling made it impossible to go on.
He fought every inch of the way, only giving in to go to the hospital after hours of convincing. His family flocked to the hospital when they heard about his crisis and while in the intensive cardiac care unit. In Mike’s words “There were enough Italians in that room to make Godfather 4”.
He faced so much adversity and hardship in his life but never complained. He passed away a few days later surrounded by his family. At his funeral at St. Joachim, Federal Judge Tim Savage gave a eulogy. Lorenzo had been his barber all through the years. His son Mike also honored his father and emphasized by saying; “They say adversity makes the man, well my father defined it.” Even while he was suffering he was only concerned about the others around him.
He quoted some lines from a song from Josh Groban to illustrate how Lorenzo raised them.
“You raise me up so I can stand on Mountains, You raise me up to walk on stormy seas; I am strong when I am on your shoulders; You raise me up to more than I can be.”
He taught us to put other first as he always put us and everyone he came in contact with first. I’ve tried to live my life based on those principals.
He leaves a legacy that is best remembered by his smile. He was a man who would talk to you like he had known you forever even if you had just walked into the shop for the first time. That corner of Frankford will never be quite the same but for those of us who knew him, he will always be remembered.
P.S. from Mike Colantonio: A bit of irony is that my dad spoke good BROKEN English. Due to a miscommunication, the original priest who was supposed to say the mass was unavailable, so the priest we had could barely speak any English. Knowing my dad, I can only imagine what he was saying as he lay before the church. “You guy’s got me a priest that speaks worst English than me.” It would be a lot more colorful but this is a family paper.
So many people went out of their way to help care for him. His co-worker Libby, my brother Joe and his co-worker Joyce, took him to numerous Dr. appointments and managed his oxygen system. He was so fond of Joyce he referred to her as his adopted daughter. My sister-in-Law Marlene took him to medical appointments as well.
His 2 best friends, Tony and Fernando did all they could for him whenever he needed something done. My wife Marie, the only non-Italian in the room at any given time, had planed on having a birthday cake and dinner at his house as a surprise but we had to end up doing it in the hospital instead. We had balloons, cake and party hats and the family and nursing staff all sang happy birthday.
Several of us slept in his hospital room, each of us taking turns. I was fortunate to have been able to tell him how I felt and all he did for us during the wee hours of the night. One of the few times I saw my father cry.
We were the lucky ones. He raised everyone up who were fortunate enough to have known him.