Life Story: Tony Sciuto

Tony SciutoWhen you’re at a dance, dance“, Tony Sciuto told his children. When his son finally asked him what he meant, Tony told him that whatever the situation, make the most of it. Don’t sit on the sidelines; do what you’re there to do. It was a philosophy Tony lived all his life.

Fate didn’t give him the big breaks, but everything he did, he did with his whole heart. Tony was a cobbler. He probably learned the craft from his father, who was a jack-of-all-trades and probably learned it in his native Viagrande, Sicily. Tony’s mother was from Bonaccorsi, Sicily, about five miles away, but his parents didn’t meet until immigrating to the United States.

The fourth of five children, Tony grew up in the old Italian-Jewish neighborhood of South Portland, in a house on Gibbs Street and Water Avenue.
He accompanied his father on trips buying scrap metal to sell to Zidell and on knife-sharpening forays to San Jose, Calif. The family name was Sciuto, but somewhere along the line the second generation changed it to Sciuto, although they still pronounced it “Shooto“.

Tony graduated from Failing Grade and Lincoln High schools and went to work for George Paris Shoe Repair in downtown Portland.

He had a carefree bachelorhood at first. Several times a week, he and his little sister, Mary, skated the night away at the Imperial Skating Rink at the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge. Then he’d drop Mary off and go out on dates.

In 1943, Tony was drafted into the Army and ended up in the Philippines, where he was a driver and bodyguard for a Col. Bailey. He was shot in the side in Luzon, on the Villa Verde Trail, by a Japanese sniper. A second bullet ricocheted off his rifle and hit his foot.

Thirty days later, he was driving Bailey and a staff sergeant when he saw a spark and yelled, “Grenade!” The grenade killed the sergeant, wounded the colonel and hit Tony in the shoulder. Tony and the colonel scrambled over an embankment, where the colonel died in his arms. Tony stayed with the bodies until he was able to summon help the next morning. Doctors were unable to remove all the shrapnel and told him it would eventually kill him — that he’d never live through his 40s. He was put on limited service until his discharge.

He returned home with two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars for Valor and enough metal in his body to set off airport metal detectors for the rest of his life. He also had a lifetime of nightmares and sleepless nights.

Every night he was gone, the Imperial Skating Rink played “Rio Rio” in his honor at 10 p.m.

He wanted to be a policeman when he returned, but George Paris told him he needed him, and Tony went back to shoe repair. He never looked back.

He met Pat Wilmarth at a dance at the Palais Royal Dance Hall, and they married in 1947. The moved to Portland’s Hillsdale neighborhood in 1952.

In 1954, Tony opened Hillsdale Shoe Repair. For the next 29 years, he was a neighborhood fixture. He wasn’t just a repairman; he was one of the best in town. He made lifts and adjustments for doctors, dyed shoes for weddings and other events, and crafted cuffs for expensive riding boots. Nordstrom and other shoe stores sent him their repairs.

People came to the shop even when they didn’t have a shoe problem. They loved to talk and joke with Tony. He had nicknames for everyone, passed out suckers to children, and knew everyone’s history and problems.

He threw himself into the affairs of the community. He badgered the Hillsdale merchants group to institute its annual blueberry pancake breakfast, helped get and install the center’s Christmas tree, and planted daffodil bulbs along Capitol Highway.

As a member of the Southwest Portland Lions Club, he bundled and schlepped newspapers every weekend for its drive, worked on its Christmas tree farm and even transported enucleated eyes for its eye bank.

When hopscotch became a fad in the neighborhood, children asked for old heels to use in the game. Tony donated a whole case of new heels to Robert Gray Elementary School. He made leather shoes for a horse — so its hooves wouldn’t damage the stage — that was featured in a Wilson High School play.

For about 50 years, he met a group of professional men every morning for coffee. The venue changed through the years; they met first at Jenkinson Pastry, then Dunkin’ Donuts and more recently at Noah’s Bagels.

Tony was the patriarch of his large, extended family. After his father died, he supported his mother and older brother — later seeing that Mateo (“Joe“) always had a job in his shop. Cousins, nieces, nephews and grandnieces and grandnephews came to him for help and advice.

After he retired in 1984, he developed heart problems. He had two quadruple bypasses. After the second one, he said he had an out-of-body experience. “I’m not afraid to die“, he said. He said God let him see a place so peaceful and beautiful that he didn’t want to leave, but that God told him it wasn’t time, that he had to take care of his family.

Doctors told Tony in late April that he had only two days to live. He extended it to 10 days. During that time, his was an open house. Friends and family came by constantly, bringing his favorite foods and drinks. They reminisced about old times, told jokes and teased one another.

Even during this time, Tony called family members with health problems and told them not to give up, bolstering their spirits. He died April 25 at age 87. Before he died, he told several people that the last 10 days had been the happiest of his life.

(font: – Joan Harvey, 11 maggio 2009)

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