Dad’s Eulogy December 14, 2011
Good morning everyone one. It is my privilege and honor to represent the Albany Law School rugby alumni and significant sub-strata, the Law School rugby alumni who worked on the student maintenance crew for our departed boss and friend John DeMatteo. We, along with assorted others, are the Albany Law School DeMatteo scholars.
I’ve had a difficult time with John’s passing since talking with John Jr. on Saturday. I’ve been working this over in my head since. I knew I was going to need some help today to honor Dad’s life. I don’t know whether he’s been talking to me these last few days, but I’ve been talking with him. Essentially I’ve had a little role reversal with Dad in my head and in my conversations with him, I’ve been asking him for some help, by saying “C’mon Dad, give me that mop. It’s my turn now; you’ve got a new group of friends to start working over in “liar’s poker” and you’ve got a new cafeteria now for your coffee business. So get on it!” I’m not sure that’s exactly the way you go about asking for help from those departed, but that’s what I did.
From 1963 to 1996, John DeMatteo loyally served the Albany Law School community in many different capacities. He was strong, durable and discreet. He always did his best to insure that no one, including Homer Keyes, ended up looked bad. If there was someone in our law school community that didn’t like him and respect him, I don’t know who it was.
It’s difficult to describe the extent of John’s relationship with each of us; it was different with each and yet it was the same. He defined his role for us very well; he always said, “I’m your dear old Dad.”
Back in the day, Albany Law School consisted of one building, 4 floors, about 45,000 square feet complete with drinking fountains, smaller classrooms and study rooms, student lounges, a basement of sorts, a workshop, garage, loading dock, cafeteria with some well used coffee pots and a 2nd floor, double decker library. Well, Dad was the master of this domain. He had a key for every door and a few extras that were always on his belt. I was there for three years and there were places in the building I’d never been.
The law school needed cleaning, every day, night and day. There were able bodied law students that needed financial aid. There were no such things as free tuition, big scholarships, corporate free rides or big give always. But, there was an astonishingly brilliant faculty member and Chairman of the Law School admissions committee named Professor William Watkins. Professor Watkins, who referred to himself as “the Wat”, started the Albany Law School rugby club in 1966, 3 years after Dad started working at the school. Dad was a confidant of the Wat and he helped the Wat on many, many occasions. Before the advent of computers, together, Dad and the Wat knew everything about everybody. As so, (to use a phrase Dad enjoyed) BINGO, the DeMatteo scholarship program was born.
The DeMatteo scholarship program at Albany Law School largely consisted of rugby players (with selected others), normally 2nd and 3rd year students and occasionally 1 st year students as well. There was no advertising for these jobs, there was no formal application process, the precise number of available jobs was a well kept secret. They were handed down through the club year after year. The precise selection process was always a mystery to me. I don’t think the Dean or anyone else got involved. Suffice to say, you didn’t have a job unless you cut the mustard with the Wat and with Dad.
The guys got a part-time job that paid well which in turn allowed them some flexibility to get out and play on the rugby field a couple times a week and on Saturdays.
Now, there were many different cleaning tasks available for the student workers. You were to come in 6 times a week, either at 7 am or 11pm to “work” for an hour. Suffice to say, there were all different types of workers on the clean-up crew; the new guys got the tougher jobs. There were several types of “easy” jobs on the crew; wiping the drinking fountains topped the list. If you were one of Dad’s favorites (Todd Weber and Jim Hacker come to mind), let’s just say their jobs weren’t too hard.
Yes, Dad wanted the school clean and yes, Dad wanted the work done. He would show up at these odd hours, without notice, and pop in. Literally, you’d turn the corner and there he was. If you weren’t where you supposed to be, you got some extra duty. For instance, after a St. Pat’s party as freshmen, Chris Quinn and I got to find out a few days after the party how many small little window panes were in the front entrance foyer. There were hundreds of them and everyone, particularly the upper classmen rugby players, had some fun watching us cleaning every one of those little windows during the school day. We only did that once.
Dad was always quick to commentate on the quality and quantity of your work. I think he yelled more at the guys he liked. For instance, as you were mopping the floor, Dad would pop in and give you an instant critique, something along these lines: “Where did you learn to mop floors? Were you in the Navy? This floor looks like a battleship! You’re no good, you’re a terrible worker. I made a mistake hiring you, I think I’m going to fire you.”
I got fired at least 5 times in my freshman year; it took me about 3 times to figure out that Dad wasn’t serious, but at the time it sounded plenty serious to me.
John also didn’t call everyone on the crew by name; at the time, I didn’t think he knew everyone’s name. He had his favorites that he called by name, Jim Hacker, Todd Weber, Gene DeSantis (now a lobbyist – go figure), Frank Bosco, and of course Homer Keyes. He always seemed to know their names. I don’t think he ever called me by my name during the entire time I was in school; I wondered who knew my name to put it on the school paycheck. I could only figure that he pointed me out in the hallway to Miss Wilkinson the registrar or Mrs. Jennie Carpinello and they took the bookkeeping from there. But you know what? Every time I returned to the law school after I graduated he called me by my first name Bill.
Dad had nicknames for many of his student workers. His nicknames were like code. In order to effectively communicate with Dad about crew related stuff (or gossip), you had to know his series of nicknames for his workers. Homer Keyes has authorized a couple of stories involving him and I assure everyone that Dad would authorize them being told here as well. For instance, when Homer was in school he worked for Dad. He also worked a bit for Miss Wilkinson in her office and she apparently looked out for Homer; you can bet he watched his language when he was on her side of the second floor. The Wat also looked out for him. How else could Homer have gotten through law school?
Anyway, when John DeMatteo Jr. was a young boy, he’d be in the law school with his dad on weekends and things like that. Certainly with no disrespect now, at the time, Dad called him Little John. What young boy of that era didn’t want to go to his Dad’s workplace and hang with his Dad? So one day, little John is in the hallway in front of the men’s locker room. Dad was looking for Homer and says to his 8 year old son Little John: “Where’s the moron?” Little John knew exactly who his Dad was looking for and silently just pointed his finger in Homer’s direction.
Dad was a loyal friend and helper to Miss Helen Wilkinson and Mrs. Carpinello. He liked them and they liked him. He would do anything for them. Together with the Wat, they ran the place; they were an extremely strong, loyal team. Dad would also do hundreds of favors for the faculty during his time there; anything he could, anything as simple as getting supplies to taking faculty members to the airport or helping them when their cars broke down. He was always helping someone at the school. I don’t know what they paid Dad at the school, but it wasn’t enough.
But more importantly, Dad enjoyed his students and Dad wanted to help them. He’d never say it but that was the deal. He had an affinity for the guys that didn’t have much (which was most of us) and he helped hundreds of students get through school. As Homer put it, “Buckwheat, there was one night where I was charged with an assortment of contretemps, nothing substantiated and I was unjustly accused by the local police. So I land in jail. I was brand new at school, I didn’t know anyone or who to call. So there I was, calling my dad at home in Connecticut; I told him where I was and he hung up on me. I didn’t know anyone else, so I called John DeMatteo. He called me a few names on the telephone, asked me where I was and then came down and bailed me out. I owe much of my survival at law school to John DeMatteo.”
Another time, Dad let one of Homer’s contemporaries borrow the school pick-up truck on a Saturday. Well, the next day, Sunday or Monday, John got called into the Dean’s office and was questioned about the Saturday late night “hit and run” truck crash in which the law school pickup truck was involved and then left the scene. I’m not sure exactly happened next, but I’m sure that Dad protected the student that had borrowed the truck.
Like I said, whatever they paid Dad at the law school, it wasn’t enough.
Dad loved a little game involving dollar bills called “liar’s poker” and he loved sitting in the cafeteria with some of the guys, making some noise, carrying on, playing liar’s poker. Thing was, to play you needed dollar bills and many times Dad had to pull dollar bills out of his pocket and loan them to the students to carry on the liars poker ritual because we didn’t have any dollar bills. Whether Dad won or lost, he rarely took money from the students and usually walked away from the dollar bills he gave the students to play the game in the first place!
Dad loved drinking coffee, drinking soda from the soda machine and sitting in the cafeteria with his boys on breaks. Many times John’s assistant Richard Van Hattum would join him. It was almost like the comedy team Lewis and Martin. Dad was the straight man and Richard was the comedian. Make no doubt, Dad was entitled to work breaks and everyone knew it, everyone from the lowliest freshman all the way up to the Dean. When John DeMatteo was sitting down, you respected his time because he was always working, always on the job. The guys on the crew loved drinking coffee and soda with John. We would take turns buying for each other. I think grape soda was his favorite and I think it cost a quarter from the cafeteria machine. Sometimes you had to play liar’s poker to determine who bought the soda. It was a lot of fun to play liars poker, drink grape soda and hang with Dad in the cafeteria.
We respected Dad so much that in our 2nd year, we named our intramural basketball team the “DeMatteo Keglers.”
Dad always liked to know your social status, how you were doing with the opposite sex. He had a network of unknown information sources; he had connections and snitches. I almost think it’s possible that some of his snitches traded information so they didn’t have to work so hard at their jobs. He was like J. Edgar Hoover. He had all the information. Somehow Dad always seemed to know what was going on with me even though I never talked about it with him. It was the 1970’s law school version of social networking, sort of like “cafeteria FACEBOOK.”
Dad commanded respect among the crew. You could laugh with him, you could joke around, you could always pretend you were working too hard and needed more pay. We had a lot of fun doing that; “Dad I need some help, Dad I got jammed up, Dad I’m running short, Dad I’m working so hard.” We were like puppies; barking, yipping, often yawning and often sleeping; Dad took it all in stride. But, whenever Dad needed you during the day (and he picked his spots, it wasn’t often), you didn’t ask questions like “What do you need, where are we going, what are we going to do, how long will it take?” When Dad said “I need you” you followed him, no questions asked. He didn’t have to ask for loyalty among the workers he commanded.
We didn’t know it then, but John’s way with people and with us extended far, far beyond the law school. Although at the time most of us knew John was married and had 2 boys, few of us had a window into John’s life outside law school. Although we knew John was a soldier in Korea, how little we actually knew.
John DeMatteo entered the US Army at a young age. He stayed in the service for 7 years. He was shipped to Korea around 1950. He had the extreme misfortune of being pinned down with the group of soldiers that later became known to the world as the Frozen Chosin or “The Chosin Few.” Here are just a few of the details from Wikipedia about one of the most historic battles in United States Military History:
The Chosin Reservoir is a man-made lake located in the northeast of the Korean peninsula. The battle’s main focus was around the 78 mile long road that connects Hungnam and Chosin Reservoir which served as the only retreat route for the UN forces. The area around the Chosin Reservoir was sparsely populated.
The battle was fought over some of the roughest terrain during some of the harshest winter weather conditions of the Korean War. The road was created by cutting through the hilly terrain of Korea, with steep climbs and drops. Dominant peaks overlook the entire length of the road. The road’s quality was poor, and in some places it was reduced to a one lane gravel trail. On 14 November, a cold front from Siberia descended over the Chosin Reservoir, and the temperature plunged to as low as −35 °F (−37 °C). The cold weather was accompanied by frozen ground, creating considerable danger of frostbite casualties, icy roads, and weapon malfunction.
The US X Corps and the ROK I Corps later reported a total of 10,495 battle casualties, of which 4,385 were from the US Marines, 3,163 were from the US Army, 78 were from the British Royal Marines and 2,812 were from South Koreans attached to American formations. Outside of the combat losses, the 1st Marine Division also reported 7,338 non-battle casualties due to the cold weather.
All of the UN troops that served at Chosin were later honored with the nickname “The Chosin Few.” On 15 September 2010, the Veterans of the Korean War Chosin Reservoir Battle memorial was unveiled by the United States Marine Corps Commandant General James T. Conway at Camp Pendleton.
In support of the Bronze Star creation, in 1944 General George Marshal wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt: “The fact that the ground troops, Infantry in particular, lead miserable lives of extreme discomfort and are the ones who must close in personal combat with the enemy, makes the maintenance of their morale of great importance. …….. the ground troops, particularly the Infantry Riflemen are now suffering the heaviest losses, air or ground, in the Army, and enduring the greatest hardships.”
The Army regulation reads in part “The Bronze Star Medal is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the Army of the United States after December 6, 1941, distinguished himself or herself by heroic or meritorious achievement or service …………..”
For John DeMatteo’s service as one of The Frozen Chosin, he was decorated with the Bronze Star, not once, not twice but three times. The Bronze Star with 2 Oak Leaf clusters. I’ve been told by a Navy captain recently that the only way a serviceman received a Bronze Star during the Korean War was by saving lives in combat.
Evidently that is exactly what Dad did. Years after the War, Dad was so proud that his elder son Evan enrolled at Siena College and pursued Army ROTC. He was proud of both of his sons and his family. We were in law school when Evan was at Sienna. Evan graduated from Siena and received his commission as an officer in the United States Army. Imagine how proud Dad and his wife Bernie must have been.
Recently, Evan shared a couple of stories. After Evan received his commission, he received orders to report to the Republic of Korea, where his father had so valiantly fought as a soldier 30 years earlier. Evan had obtained some Polaroid pictures depicting various places in Korea. One day, as he was getting ready to depart for overseas, Evan asked his Dad about the places depicted in the photos.
Dad took him downstairs to their basement, brought out a map, and showed Evan where each of the places depicted in the photos were located on the map. He then took about 45 minutes to explain many things about the Korean War and his service. Evan said he received a 45 minute lesson on the Korean War for the first time that day, including Puzan, the DMZ and the Chosin Reservoir.
Dad was always pretty close mouthed about his Bronze Stars. Both Evan and Bernie relate this story from Dad:
We were pinned down under heavy advancing enemy fire and we were getting surrounded. The Chinese were coming and the order came for direct fire. Our main gun was a 76 mm artillery gun that had broken and was not firing. We needed it to save ourselves but the gun had been abandoned and was being hit by enemy fire. The cord to retrieve the weapon was broken. I looked around and I saw the guys I was fighting with and I knew that many had wives and kids back home. I was single and I decided I was going for that gun. I ran out to the gun and kicked it, trying to get it to fire. I kicked it 5 times and it wouldn’t fire. Finally out of desperation I hit it with my fist and it came to life.
Although I don’t know the rest of the story, Dad told his family that this action formed the basis for the award of at least one Bronze Star. None of Dad’s student crew knew of his decorated, battlefield bravery.
Dad suffered in the war. In addition to the misery of the Chosin Reservoir, Dad contracted malaria a couple times and was very sick. When he returned, he had PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, back before that was a term that everyone understood. Bernie relates that early on in their marriage, whenever Dad heard heavy thunder at night, he would dive under the bed thinking it was incoming rounds.
Another time with Bernie, seeing a car accident and a person lying in the street, Dad jumped out of his car yelling “Medic, Medic!”
Evan tells of another time when he was home on his first leave and he and Dad were in Price Chopper in line and were discussing Evan’s Brigade commander in Korea. Dad was asking about the effectiveness of the Brigade Commander. Evan was describing a difficult time he’d been having with some of the troops in the Motor Pool and was in a tough management spot. The troops were under stress. Evidently the Brigade Commander himself came into the Motor Pool and put the guys at ease. Evan said Dad remarked at the time “that was a guy with a touch (for handling people).”
Later returning to Fort Hood, Evan found himself thinking about Dad’s comment about the “touch” of the Brigade Commander and Evan thought “You know, my Dad was the guy with the touch. Look at all those guys at the law school whose lives my dad touched.”
Dad’s son, John Jr. verifies all of this and more.
Our dad was completely devoted to his family, as busy as he was with work, he never missed any family function that we had. As kids when were sick, once we started feeling better there was always a treat, usually it was pizza.
When I moved to Connecticut, my parents would come down to visit often, the two times that I moved into a new apartment, Dad always came down with my mother and just unpacked for me, no questions asked. In the last apartment that I lived in, my dad got along with my land-lady because they had two things in common, cards and bingo. Every time they visited, there was always a card game.
Imagine that, Dad sitting down for some games of chance and making some new friends.
So, while we were in law school, did we as “wet behind the ears students” know any of this? No, we did not. But now it’s easy to see how Dad handled us so well. All of our hijinks, pranks, no-shows, excuses, stunts, gags and more than occasional stupidity were nothing for John DeMatteo to handle. He’d seen the worst and he’d survived the worst. He knew what hell looked like. Although we thought we were under so much stress and were having such a terrible, difficult time in law school, Dad knew better and in his own way, he tried to show us the way; with camaraderie, humor, leadership and joy de vivre, the joy of life.
It’s only now, in our humbled state, that we recognize the gift of John DeMatteo.
John wasn’t a stranger to having fun on his own time. He loved going to dinner and then going to play bingo. The Saturday before he passed on, he went out, had dinner and then enjoyed some bingo. He loved going to the Turning Stone Casino. When he got so he couldn’t walk, the family got him a wheelchair and off he went around the casino in the chair. He wasn’t stopped by his illness. He was a role model for his family; he had to have had an inner sense that he didn’t want his family feeling sorry for him, no sir; as long as he was able he was going to move.
No eulogy for Dad should start or end without the spotlight being on his loving, devoted wife Bernie. Bernie was married to John for decades, I’m not sure how many years but if I said 60 years I’d be in the ballpark. Don’t see that too much anymore.
John met Bernie by being a wedding crasher. Can you imagine, Dad as a wedding crasher? Apparently Bernie’s brother had been invited to a wedding and guess what, Dad came along with him. The rest is history.
Dad was devoted to Bernie and Bernie was devoted to Dad, all those years of loyal love and devotion. Dad made it a point to keep his home life separate from his work life. He never talked about his home life with us. For those of us that were lucky enough, we got to eat at Bernie’s kitchen table in her home on occasion. I ate there once in 3 years, Jim Hacker ate there several times; I think Homer Keyes probably would have preferred to live there.
All during their marriage Bernie had to deal with the long hours, the impossibly difficult demands placed upon Dad at the law school and his being on call 24/7. Particularly since Dad’s illness, Bernie has been his constant companion, through thick and thin. His helpmate, his nurse and his rock. John, Jr., living at home was right there as well. Evan and his family right around the corner. Together, Bernie and her boys, Evan and John Jr., kept Dad at home, right to the end. No nursing home, no institution, he did not turn into a ward of the state. A solid family that took care of their husband and Dad.
So, in the end, John DeMatteo was much more than he appeared at Albany Law School. He was a fighter, a war hero, a soldier decorated for bravery and valor. He was a great husband and father; very loyal, very protective and very proud of his family. He was a one-of-a-kind icon at his workplace. He selflessly took care of people, thousands of people. He never sought the limelight, never wanted promotions. The Army wanted to promote him to Sergeant, he refused the promotion. All he wanted to do was live the American dream and help his sons to a better life.
He fought for the things he cherished and achieved; yet he was kind, gentle and caring. He’d give you the shirt off his back and a couple times I think he did just that. He never asked for anything in return. This man was the salt of the earth.
So in closing, we turn back to Dad, now with the spirit and with his God. And we say to him in a way that he would say to us: “C’mon Dad, we’ll do the work. It’s our turn now; you’ve got a new group of friends for “liar’s poker” and you’ve got a new cafeteria to start your coffee business. So get on it!
We love you Dad, we love you.
William W. Pulos
December 14, 2011