It didn’t take long for the gossip to start.
Dan Sullivan shared tales of a prankster in the schoolyard. Don Scalzo and Pat Riley argued over who was the better infielder. Victoria Antenucci teased Riley about a girl named Rosie: “She was crazy about you!”
They sat together in Riley’s dining room in Ballard last Thursday afternoon, but it could have been a classroom, not unlike the one in the Central District where the eight of them met as classmates more than 80 years ago.
It’s remarkable, they say, that they are still friends after almost a century. Never mind what happened in between. A Great Depression and a world war didn’t stop them from bonding in their childhoods. Now, a global pandemic won’t stop them from reuniting.
The eight former classmates — Scalzo, 88; Riley, 88; Antenucci, 89; brothers Dan and Andy Sullivan, 89 and 88; Joe Lombardo, 89; Vito Mangialardi, 89; and Richard Yellam, 89 — gathered again to laugh and reminisce. Their annual reunion was interrupted by COVID-19 last year. But now fully vaccinated, they had no trouble making up for lost time.
“When we go back, it’s like we were back in the old days,” Riley said.
It started in a first grade classroom at St. Mary’s Church and Grade School in Seattle’s Central District. Until the eighth grade, they stuck together in the same class with the same teacher.
“We had over 40 kids in our class, if you can believe it,” Mangialardi said. “Now the rules are different. They get over 12 and they complain!”
Most of them are from Irish and Italian immigrant families, and St. Mary’s parish was a tight-knit community they relied on growing up.
They shared memories of a tense, wartime Seattle: Blackouts once a week and large barrage balloons looming above Boeing Field to catch enemy aircraft. Some went as altar boys to serve mass at an Italian prisoner of war camp.
“They’d get a cake … cut it in four and give us each a big piece,” Scalzo recalled.
But their childhood “was not particularly scary,” Andy Sullivan said. Thankfully, their fathers got deferments from the war because they were raising large families. So as children, they mostly worried about their cursive and whether they would get hit with a rubber hose by the principal.
There were happier memories too. The group played baseball, winning the city championship together in eighth grade. They remember the lineup: Lombardo, their best runner at center field, Sullivan at shortstop and Scalzo at second base until he got hurt fielding a ground ball and Riley replaced him.
“There were eight great players and me,” Riley joked. But he proudly recalled his one big highlight: “One game, I made two outs in one inning.”
The baseball championship was one of their last hurrahs. They went their separate ways for high school and beyond. Mangialardi worked as a warehouse manager for the Seattle School District. Antenucci moved to Palm Springs and met Frank Sinatra on a golf course. Yellam worked his way through college in Gonzaga and almost shipped out for the Korean War.
“Just before I left, the war ended,” he said. “So I don’t have any holes in me.”
There’s a lot more to talk about these days. Seattle’s transformation in the past several decades has been dizzying for all of them to follow. Riley vividly remembers how the Smith Tower downtown used to be the landmark of the city.
“At one time, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi,” Riley said. “Now, you look at it and it’s a little stubby thing with all those other buildings.”
“When you’re driving around town, you can’t see the sun,” Mangialardi said. “Construction never stops.”
No change has been bigger, of course, than COVID-19. The virus forced the group to call off their annual reunion last year. At the height of the pandemic, it kept them from their families too.
“I talk to them on the phone, but it’s not the same,” Scalzo said. “You’re in your late 80s, and suddenly, your family’s been taken away from you.”
They all feel much safer now that they are fully vaccinated. But the conversation hushed with worry when Andy Sullivan brought up news of the delta variant. No one knows what to expect, but Mangialardi was blunt about what concerned him the most.
“These people that are not getting the shots, and all of a sudden it’s coming back again, I’ve got no respect for them at all,” he said.
Still, Scalzo was stoic about the difficulties of the pandemic. “We’re all Depression babies,” he said, and the room nodded in agreement. “We all grew up in hard times.”
Riley is more worried about his grandchildren. Even when things got tough, he and his friends were able to stick together in the classroom, at church and on the baseball field. Today’s kids haven’t been able to say the same.
“They’ve been jerked around with COVID and jerked out of their educational system,” Riley said. “I think the young people today … have it a lot harder than we did.”
Either way, the friends are grateful. As tough as the pandemic has been, another historical event wasn’t enough to keep them apart.
“We separated for many, many years,” Scalzo said. “But I can honestly say that we still considered each other brothers.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed a quote to the wrong person. Vito Mangialardi is the one who said, “These people that are not getting the shots, and all of a sudden it’s coming back again, I’ve got no respect for them at all.”