ColumnistsMy Turn

Growing Up in a Small Town

‘Along with my parents, the caring people of my hometown helped form me into who I am today’

By Bruce Frassinelli  


We seniors are constantly admonished not to live in the past. I agree, but I also believe it is fine to visit there from time to time.

I was reminded of that again when I recently was guest speaker at my hometown’s historical society where I recounted some of my antics as a boy and teenager.

What struck me were the smiles on the faces of many of my contemporaries in the audience who were vicariously living their childhoods through my experiences.

I grew up in a small, coal-mining community in northeastern Pennsylvania. When I was a kid, the coal mines were petering out, and most of the miners had to find other jobs outside of the area or move to communities with more robust economies. It was pretty much of a foregone conclusion that unless I took over our family’s mom-and-pop grocery store that I was going to make a career somewhere else.

I wanted to be a French teacher and enrolled at a state teachers college about 40 miles away. When I graduated, I taught high school for a little more than two years, then went into radio and, finally, newspaper work.

Although my jobs took me to a number of localities, I never forgot my hometown. What emerged as a final product had its molding origins there. First, I was blessed with parents who taught me the important values of life. They were immigrant Italians and came to the United States with virtually nothing to find a new life where they could raise their children and succeed through hard work and enterprise.

Although my jobs took me to a number of localities, I never forgot my hometown.

They taught me the value of being polite, kind, courteous, grateful and to repay my community for the opportunity it had given me to be successful. These were also the hallmarks of working in a small grocery store where the customer was always right.

My friends’ parents taught me the graciousness of hospitality, something we were keen on, too. Anyone coming to our home was greeted with enthusiasm and given food and drink practically before they had their coats off. This was the reception we received when we visited friends’ homes, too.

When I walked the streets of my hometown, I greeted everyone with an enthusiastic “Hiya,” and they returned the greeting. If I encountered more than a passing acquaintance, it is likely I would stop to chat. When I went to the local bank to make deposits for my parents, a two-block trip, it would sometimes take me an hour because of the number of conversations I had on the street or on someone’s front stoop.

My mother always said she had thousands of eyes around the community, meaning that other parents had my back just as she was looking out for my friends. God forbid, though, if I did something unacceptable, she would sometimes know about it and confront me with the grim details of the infraction as I walked in the door.

At the time, this seemed oh-so-smalltownish, but as I look back on it today, I realize it was done in the name of love and caring.

There were so many kind people who crisscrossed my life and had an impact on me. Several of my teachers were major influences. One appointed me to be the editor of the Junior High Chat, a monthly newspaper. This was the beginning of a lifelong fascination and love affair with journalism.

My high school French teacher inspired me to major in French and to become a high school teacher, just like her. I was devastated when her tour bus crashed, and she was killed while on vacation in Switzerland.

Along with my parents, the caring people of my hometown helped form me into who I am today. They gave me the grounding on the important things of life; they were there to knock me down a peg or two when I got a little too full of myself, but, above all, they formed a valuable support system. If I stumbled, they were there to help me get to my feet and encourage me to try again. I always remember the words of encouragement from my algebra teacher; “Reach for the stars, Bruce,” she would say. “Even if you miss, you are sure to pick up some star dust along the way.”

I will be eternally grateful that I lived in such a community during my formative years, and I have always looked upon my hometown with the utmost respect and affection.

My brother and his family and my niece and her family still live in my hometown, so I visit regularly. Regardless of how many times I do, when I reach the town limits I get a smile on my face and a lump in my throat, because I feel as if I am home again, just for a little while.