At 100, life-long Santa Rosan Bassignani still plays in his beloved Drum and Bugle Corps
By CHRIS SMITH
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Nello Bassignani likes vegetables well enough, as you’d expect a vigorous 100-year-old would. But he knew long ago he didn’t care to spend his life planting and plucking them.
As a kid in west Santa Rosa’s Little Italy district, Bassignani helped his immigrant parents reap a lean living from a leased garden whose soil lies today beneath Dutton Avenue.
“Those raw carrots and turnips were good, out in the fields,” he recalls, his face aglow with his characteristic smile.
He learned to work, hard, in those vegetable fields. Early in his teens he aspired to redirect his labor to something that would put more coins in his pocket.
He was 16 when grocer Louis Tonelli hired him to make deliveries for Pershing Market, then one of Santa Rosa’s 30 or so grocery stores. He saved money while taking increasingly responsible jobs with the family markets that served the city of about 10,000.
While still at Santa Rosa High School, Class of 1934, Bassignani pulled $135 out of savings and bought a 1929 Ford. That was quite a feat for a teenager, especially then, in the depths of bitterly hard economic times.
A diligent sort eager to advance, young Bassignani jumped at the chance to learn a trade from grocer Quinto Furia, owner of the city’s original Pacific Market.
“He started me out trimming bones for hamburger,” Bassignani said. “Then he taught me how to skin a calf.”
Bassignani became a butcher. His eyes lit up as a memory more than 80 years old sprang to mind.
“You know what they paid when I started in meat?” he asked. “Twelve dollars a week.”
He relished doing whatever it took to make customers happy and he almost never missed a day of work. The eldest of his seven grandchildren, Windsor carpenter Anthony Dixon, said he’s always strived to match his grandfather’s work ethic.
“He’s the biggest influence in my life,” said Dixon, 55. “He grew up during the Depression and he knows that work is life.”
Bassignani worked as a union butcher for nearly three decades prior to the early 1960s, when he started up his own meat counter inside Ray’s Food Center. That’s the market at Hearn and Dutton avenues that was operated for half a century by his nephews, Raymond Lazzini and the late Joseph Lazzini.
As hard as Bassignani toiled until the day he retired at age 66 in 1978, he has always appreciated that there really is the more to life than work. There is, for one thing, music.
He took up the drums as a kid, and as a young man played in a dance band that performed at Sonoma County grange halls, at clubs along the Russian River and elsewhere. His late wife, Santa Rosa native Mary (O’Halloran) Bassignani, was a musician and singer, too.
“She was a good dancer. We used to go down to Lena’s and dance a lot,” Bassignani said. They married in 1936 and moved into the house near Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital that has now been home to Bassignani for more than 75 years.
Though he was too young to serve in World War I, he was invited in 1936 to join the Drum and Bugle Corps of Santa Rosa’s Theodore Roosevelt Post 21 of the American Legion. It needed a drummer.
For most of the following 40 years, the marching musicians in the Drum and Bugle Corps were a faithful component of the Luther Burbank Rose Parade, military remembrances and similar events throughout Sonoma County and well beyond.
“We got as far as Long Beach and San Diego,” Bassignani said. “And we went to Fort Bragg every year; that’s what kept us alive.”
Friend, veteran and fellow Drum and Bugle Corps drummer Roy Memeo of Santa Rosa shakes his head fondly at memories of those bus journeys to parades in Fort Bragg.
“It’s a terrible thing to say, but we’d go from bar and to bar and they’d give us shots,” said Memeo, a retired service station owner. “The town just loved it. I tell you, the town just loved it.”
He also harkened to the day in the late 1950s that the corps marched and performed in the Rose Parade in Santa Rosa, then a second parade in Fairfield, then a third in Napa.
Though down from several dozen members to barely a dozen, the Drug and Bugle Corps still performs on occasion, indoors and seated. Memeo said Bassignani has been a key member for three-quarters of a century, and he’s been indispensable since longtime drum major Don Magers died in 2003. Bassignani, then 91, stepped up to take Magers’ place.
“He’s just kept it together,” Memeo said. “He’s something else. And he’s all about family. He loves his family. He’s just a good person.”
Bassignani’s also a good bartender, playing that role at American Legion functions for about the past 30 years.
“I think sometimes people come up and they buy a drink just so they can talk to Nello,” said his daughter, Sandra Bassignani of Santa Rosa.
“And all the women get a hug,” she said.
Her dad’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered in Santa Rosa last Friday for his 100th birthday. One chapter of the days-long celebration filled his childhood neighborhood’s Le Gare restaurant with laughter and a century of memories.
Back at home, Bassignani said that these days he tires more quickly than in the past, “but at least I’m still getting around.” He stopped driving a few years ago.
Every morning, he phones his one surviving sibling, Peter, 95, who lives across town. Every afternoon he watches “Judge Judy” on TV.
Bassignani traveled a bit with Mary after he retired from the meat business, but he said he never considered living anywhere but the town in which his parents sank roots a few years before he was born.
“There’s no other place,” he said.
Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and firstname.lastname@example.org.