By Ron Leir
What began as a Belleville ninth-grader’s homework assignment ended up as a validation for someone born during the Woodrow Wilson presidency who never graduated from high school.
Earlier this year, Belleville High School reading teacher Patricia Mooney asked her class to interview someone in their family who had immigrated to the U.S. or an older relative born in the U.S. with deep ethnic roots and write about them.
So 15-year-old freshman Kristan Lombardi, “an As and Bs” student who plays softball and volleyball, picked her great aunt, Theresa Concetta Di Pasquale-Sandella, who celebrated her 95th birthday on Jan. 12.
“She’s the oldest in our family,” Kristan said.
Switching on a tape recorder, Kristan began playing the role of a reporter and began questioning her great aunt about her long life experience in America. “I spent about three and a half hours doing that,” she recalled.
Some of her questions she’d prepared in advance; others, she came up with on the fly.
Along the way, Kristan learned that Theresa was born in the early 1900s [1918, to be exact], the eldest of seven siblings, including one sister who died prematurely, all born to Luigi and Carmella Di Pasquale, who spoke Italian exclusively.
As a young child, Theresa was raised in Newark where she developed a love of animals: the family managed to raise a horse, dogs, birds and cats as constant companions in their yard.
Eventually, the family moved to Belmont Ave. in Belleville and Theresa enrolled at School 4. Unfortunately, Kristan learned, her great-aunt spoke not a word of English so her teacher sat her in the back of the classroom where she’d simply listen to the conversation going on around her.
“If she felt sick, she’d just put her head down on the desk and listen,” Kristan said.
There was no such thing in those days as bilingual education or ESL (English as a Second Language) to assist children whose primary language was something other than English. Kids were simply expected to pick up the lingo by osmosis.
Kristan found herself baffled by the school’s seeming indifference toward her great aunt’s well-being in the classroom. “How do you leave someone there like that?”she wondered.
Still, despite the obvious hardship she was enduring, Theresa showed up for her “schooling” every day, Kristan said.
“By the time she got to fifth or sixth grade,” Kristan said, Theresa had managed to pick up enough vocabulary from her classmates and teacher – reinforced by intermingling with kids from her neighborhood – where she could carry on a conversation with her peers.
Despite the in-school hardship, Theresa made sure she never missed a day at school.
“For entertainment, since the family had no money for movies or other pay as you go activities, Theresa “went out to play with her friends,” said Kristan.
And, of course, cellular phones were non-existent so if she was going to be late getting back home, Theresa simply had to stop what she was doing and make sure she made it home for dinner with the family where they’d sit and eat together.
By the time she’d reached her junior year, Theresa’s family needed her at the store full-time so, unfortunately, she had no choice but to drop out of school, Kristan said.
“She wanted to be a nurse,” Kristan said, but her family had opened a corner store in Belleville in the late ‘20s where she helped out and, by the time she’d reached the 11th grade, she was needed there more and more so, unfortunately, she had no choice but to drop out of school in June 1934.
After Kristan turned in her paper, her teacher was so moved by the story that she mentioned it to Interim Superintendent Helene Feldman who, in turn, proposed an idea to the Board of Education whose members readily went along.
The end result was that at its March 5 meeting, the Board of Education awarded Theresa an honorary Belleville High School diploma and “perfect attendance certificate” in recognition of the sacrifice she made “to help support her family.”
Kristan thinks of her great-aunt as a wonderful role model. “I go over her house a lot. She likes to cook and prepare Sunday dinners for the family – usually meatballs and macaroni with gravy.”
When she graduates, Kristan has hopes of learning cosmetology and/or “something involving travel.”
One of three siblings, Kristan has a younger brother Derek, 14, who attends sixth grade at No. 11 School, and an older sister Jenna, 19, a Belleville High School junior.