Tony Di Benedetto
Tony Di Benedetto
Well, he was a damn character.
And what a complicated obituary this is to write. Where to begin.
Born in Washingtonville on Oct. 18, 1923 – the son of immigrants from Italy who really wanted to fit in – Tony Di Benedetto was a child of “artistic temperament” who did not fit in well at all. How on earth could he? How could a child who was meant to stand out possibly blend in?
He was certainly artistic. He would prove that years later at Pratt Institute, where he earned his degree in architecture and industrial design. But the phrase “artistic temperament” – we all know that really means “difficult.”
And so he was.
Tony Di Benedetto died Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, at the age of 94. And indeed, right up to the end, he was enormously artistic, occasionally difficult … and incredibly, hugely loved by those who knew him well.
In eighth grade at Washingtonville, he won an award for good penmanship. In adulthood, his distinctive script was well known in Newburgh, where he lived for the final thirty years of his life and where he often sat at a table in one of favorite cafes, Caffé Macchiato on Liberty Street, and penned notes on napkins to his friends while he ate. Those notes were sometimes simply informative; sometimes funny, mad or sad; sometimes brilliant little drawings; and sometimes deeply personal. Some of his friends, like Stella Lee Prowse and Jonathan Dobins, hang onto those notes as though they are treasure from the depths of Tony’s heart.
And they are.
Tony finished high school with honors, but his plan to attend art school was delayed by World War II. Instead of taking up the easel, he took up aviation and served in the Pacific as a navigator in the Army Air Corps.
He almost didn’t make it home. On June 19, 1945, his airplane was shot out of the sky in a fire fight. There was just enough time to radio their location, then the crew jumped into the ocean. For twenty-six hours, they fought off thirst, exhaustion and the circling sharks until they were rescued by the U.S.S. Sea Fox.
After the war, Tony picked up where he left off, got his degree from Pratt, then took a job as a civilian in the nation’s newly formed Air Force, which was in the process of building air bases around the world. Tony was hired to design the buildings at the base near Madrid, Spain. And his love affair with Europe – and Madrid in particular – began. He was to stay for the next forty years, working as director of housing at the air base so he could earn a living in the place he came to call home.
His closest friend in Madrid, Jose de Luis Alonso (the Bob Fosse of Spain), became Tony’s conduit to a life in the theater. Jose directed productions of opera, ballet, modern dance – a cultural cornucopia of fun and fascinating people. Tony took his morning exercise with famous ballerinas; he traveled with troupes to other parts of Europe and South America; and, of course, he occasionally proved difficult with the dancers or Jose or his friends at the local cafe – and why not? If he differed with others about music or antiques or the quality of olives on the table or how best to dye fabric or the value of a Caucasian rug, it had to be argued.
He moved back to America when he was in his 60s – no one actually knew why. And no one understood why he chose to live in Newburgh on a street that, at the time, was run down and infested with drugs and gangs. He just did. He gutted and restored a tall, brick home on East Parmenter Street and moved in.
The drug dealers found him to be difficult. The stray cats, on the other hand, found him to be most generous.
In time – a long time, really – the street was transformed as others moved in and restored houses, including many reclaimed by Habitat for Humanity. East Parmenter Street is now the community that Tony had known in Spain – friendly, interesting, and with a wonderful cafe right around the corner where he ate each day while he wrote on napkins, where enjoyed his family of friends – and where he sometimes proved difficult. Jodi Cummings, the owner of Caffe Macchiato, always made sure she saved some soup for Tony’s lunch regardless of what time he showed up. And when his meal was over each day, he paid with his debit card, but instead of signing his name on the electronic signature pad, he always drew a stick figure instead. Or perhaps a head with wild hair. Something odd, at any rate. Jodi loved that.
Tony was pre-deceased by two brothers: Joe Di Benedetto, who was the first Orange County resident to die in World War II; and Alex Di Benedetto (Alex the Barber); and by his oldest sister, Clem DeSalvo. He is survived by two sisters, Fedela Decker of Goshen and Rose Werkman of Blooming Grove. He is also survived by several nieces and nephews: Beth Quinn and her husband Bob of Goshen; Kristine Jaroka of Monsey; Rik Werkman and his wife Sue of Castleton; Lou DeSalvo and his wife Ellen of Kansas; Barbara Dentato of Eastchester; and Jo-Ellen DeSalvo of Yonkers. He is also survived by several great and great-great nieces and nephews.
Most of all, he is survived by his many friends in Newburgh, who already miss him terribly, and by a whole lot of stray cats.
Tony’s cremains will eventually be buried in the Orange County Veterans Cemetery in Goshen if we can find his discharge papers and other important evidence of his service to his country. His life and “artistic temperament” will be celebrated with a party at Caffe Macchiato at a time and date yet to be determined. We will let you know when it gets figured out.
There will be many stories told.