Pardo Frederick DelliQuadri, my late, beloved maternal grandfather, would have turned 100 today.
Grandpa Fred was first hero, my staunchest advocate, and truly one of the most influential people in my life. Along with unruly eyebrows and a penchant for napping in front of the television, we shared a love of cartoons, sports, history, war films, Italian food and making slightly risqué lyrical substitutions to popular songs.
Grandpa Fred may have looked like a Mafioso, but he was actually an academic who served as the dean of four major schools of social work, including Columbia University. The welfare of the world’s children was of great importance to him, which I suspect had something to do with having grown up extremely poor in a very large family. (His parents met and married in Pueblo, Colorado after emigrating from Italy around the turn of the last century.) He spent eight years as the U.S. representative to the executive board of UNICEF, a position which took him to all over the world and caused him to cross paths with a number of legendary leaders; I distinctly remember a horse-tail flyswatter in his office that had been given to him by Jomo Kenyatta. In 1968, he was appointed chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau by President Johnson. (I had a major meltdown in the Oval Office during his swearing-in ceremony, though that’s a story for another time.)
For all his intelligence and accomplishments, Grandpa Fred was also incredibly unpretentious; it was not at all uncommon to see him mowing the lawn in a “gardening uniform” that consisted of a white undershirt, Bermuda shorts, black socks, dress shoes and a Panama hat. He had a down-to-earth charisma that drew people to him, and made them feel immediately at ease; I didn’t realize it at the time, but I learned so much about how to talk to people — and how to really enjoy and appreciate my interactions with them — from hanging around him at his office, at cocktail parties, and at the “19th Hole” lounge of his country club. And, of course, I learned so much about the joys of cooking from the many times that he enlisted me to help him make his famous spaghetti sauce and meatballs…
Some of the happiest memories of my childhood are of the summers my sister and I spent at our grandparents’ house in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. At night, Grandpa Fred would tuck me in with tales of his amazing life — which included shining shoes for a living while he was in elementary school, working in the WPA camps in the late 30s, and serving in the Navy during World War II. In the morning, I would inevitably be awakened by the soft “thunk” of a balled-up sock against my cheek; I’d open my eyes to find him standing in the doorway of my bedroom, a stockpile of sock balls in the crook of his arm, and a big, delighted grin on his perpetually 5 o’clock shadowed face.
In the summer of 1976, my burgeoning interest in baseball gave us even more common ground. We watched Mark Fidrych beat the Yankees on “Monday Night Baseball,” placed quarter bets with each other on the outcome of the All Star Game, and dozed off together during numerous Braves broadcasts on WTCG. He returned from one business trip that summer with a special present for me: the first issue of The Sporting News that I’d ever seen — the one with Johnny Bench on the cover. I think I memorized every stat and box score in that issue before the summer was over…
Grandpa Fred passed away thirteen years later, at the age of 74, and it’s hard for me to believe that he’s now been gone for over half of my life. He still visits me in dreams from time to time, though, and I can still feel his spirit with me whenever I’m watching a ballgame or cooking up an all-day batch of red gravy. And I still often find myself cracking up like a ten-year-old over his rewrite of the Tin Pan Alley standard “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” which went like this:
By the light of the silvery moon
You will eat a rotten prune
Then you head for the bathroom
Who left the top down?
Get the sponge
It’s all over the place
I sure do love and miss you, Gramps. Thanks for everything.