Joe DiPietro reflects on being a first generation immigrant, teaching and more

Joe DiPietroJoe DiPietro has been a fixture in the Bellingham, MA educational program for as long as many of us can remember. He was the superintendent of Bellingham Schools his last five years in the school system, and before that he taught high school, was a guidance director and spent twenty-five years as elementary school principal of South School Elementary, Pinecrest, Keough, the old South School and Assumption School when it was under the purview of the Bellingham School Department. [As told to Marjorie Turner Hollman]

I was born at my grandmother’s house in Woonsocket, RI. My parents and grandparents were all Italian immigrants. My parents came from different parts of Italy and their Italian dialects were quite different, so they had to learn English to speak to each other.

In those days no one obtained mortgages. My father framed our house in 1938, but the ’38 hurricane destroyed it so he had to start over. He first built a few rooms and added more on later. I grew up in that house at 81 Pulaski Boulevard, which is still there, and is still white, just across from Denny’s Liquors.

For a long time all the masses at Assumption Church were in French. I attended church at Assumption and from the prayer books I had an idea of what was going on, but if someone made an announcement it was in French. It was probably when I was in high school in the 1950’s when Assumption first started having English masses. There was always one confirmation class in English, but they liked to speak French.

We always had a big garden so my mother canned beans, squash, beets, and tomatoes. We also had chickens. It was a tradition to give children colored chicks at special holidays. My grandmother would bring us colored chicks and after a while we’d get twenty or twenty-five chickens so we built them a chicken coop. It makes me laugh when people say they buy organic. EVERYTHING was organic!

Even though my family was Catholic I didn’t go to St. Louis School in Woonsocket, the only Catholic school at the time in the area. Remember, Bellingham’s population was only about 4000 at the time. I couldn’t speak French, and all the classes there were in French. I was named Gussieppe, after my father. When I went to first grade at the old South School (where the common at Crooks Corner is now), I was told, “You’re in America, so we’re going to change your name to Joseph.” My father didn’t change his name, but he said, “Well, we’re in America, you better have an American name.”

The old South school had eight large rooms. There were no regulations and the teachers had very little supervision. There was one grade in each room, up to 8th grade. If you had a lot of students, you had a class of forty-five. If you had a small group, you had a class of twenty-five, but you never had a class of less than twenty-five or thirty, or they would double the classes up, first and second grades together. I had a teacher, Mrs. Haynes, who was six feet tall. If you helped her after school she gave you a ride home in the back in the rumble seat of her car. We wanted to help because it was great to get a ride home!

I enlisted so I would not get drafted when I graduated from college and missed taking part in the Korean conflict or any other conflict. Once I was released from service, I had no intention of being a teacher. I had gone to Boston University as a management major and was hired as a personnel manager trainee in a knitting yarn company, Emil Bernardt, in Boston. I worked happily there for about four months.

In 1962 Anthony (Tony) Minichiello was Bellingham Schools superintendent; the principal of the old South School was Walter Nadolny. One of their teachers taught a class of forty-three kids, and had left for medical reasons. Anthony talked to my mother, who actually volunteered me to teach this class. Tony called me and said, “You’re hired.” I asked, “Hired? For what? I didn’t apply for anything.”

Tony told me that my mother needed me at home, that she wasn’t well, and she wanted me to take the job. It was a huge pay cut, half of what I received in Boston. He told me I would be able to perform other jobs on the side such as income tax, real estate, or being a notary. With that advice, I took the job.

I was given a class of forty-three students and handled it well. I went to night school in Framingham and obtained certification, and became a junior high teacher, then a high school teacher. I ended up getting my master’s degree in education plus thirty hours beyond that in guidance counseling and administration. After three years of teaching I was hired as a guidance counselor, and later, the guidance director. After eight years in guidance I became principal of the South District, which included PInecrest, Keough, the old South School and Assumption School. At the start of the school year in 1974 the nuns left Assumption abruptly. It was the start of my second year as principal. Suddenly I was responsible for this school and had to find teachers for seventeen classrooms of students.

Back when I started teaching, if we had a class of thirty-five students we felt lucky. My first year as principal I had 900 students, and when I inherited Assumption School that number grew to 1200 students, with fifty-three classes to supervise. At the new South Elementary School as principal I had only 650 kids and thought, “Oh boy, I am in heaven!”

Marjorie Turner Hollman is a writer who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd editionMore Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd editionEasy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed, and Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. Her memoir, the backstory of Easy Walks, is My Liturgy of Easy Walks: Reclaiming hope in a world turned upside down.

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