A STRICT ASSIMILATIONIST: PETER J. CELESTE, 1939-2012

A STRICT ASSIMILATIONIST: PETER J. CELESTE, 1939-2012

By Lou Vigorita

A few weeks ago I met up with a lawyer in Seattle who shares my last name.  Amy Vigorita is no relation but her family immigrated toNew Jerseyon the left side of theHudsonwhile my roots germinated on the right side, firstManhattan, thenBrooklyn. Amy told me her father was a linguistics professor at Cornell and his mother was such a “strict assimilationist” that she and her father before her were raised to be everything American without keeping any Italian traditions and cutting all ties to their European heritage. She and her father pursued the American Dream and through hard work and education became very American. They were educated in American schools and universities and became successful and well integrated into the new culture on this side of theAtlantic.

I first met Pete Celeste years ago during the 1980s at the Pierpont Racquet Club, where we played a few matches. I was a new member and he was very cordial and friendly towards me. Earlier this week Spencer Garrett, owner of the club, mentioned to me that Pete and Virginia were members since the club opened 35 years ago. Just a few weeks ago at the 35th anniversary celebration of the club Garrett gave Pete a mug that was given to all the 35 year members. Pete really appreciated this.

These were my thoughts as I sat in Our Lady of theAssumptionChurchin the traditional Catholic funeral Mass for Pete on Oct. 26. Pete, a local attorney who passed away peacefully at his home in October, was eulogized by his eldest son, who made the point, several times, that his father’s main goal was to raise a “typical successful American family.” He was able to leave his home back in Saint Louis, Missouri and travel toLos Angeles, California, where he settled down, married, worked for the IRS, attended law school at night, met his future wife Virginia, became a lawyer, father and grandfather, educated his children and saw to the eight grandchildren getting a good start in life. A typical American dream.

 Along the way Pete served his country. He joined the US Navy in 1956. Upon completion of his military service he attended and graduated from theUniversityofMissouri. His son told us that his least favorite job was working in the family chicken market inSaint Louiswhen he was nine years old. Everytime a customer wanted to purchase a “fresh” chicken Pete had to go in the back, catch one, slaughter it, dress it, and bring it into the store. This memory apparently drove him to look west and toward a new life, away from the chicken market and all that it entailed.

 In attendance was Larry Matheney, former Ventura County Tax Collector and fellow attorney. Larry had this to say about Pete:  

 “Pete Celeste was my next-door neighbor for more than 36 years. For a couple of years we had law offices in the same building, across the hall from each other. Over those many years, I had the privilege of watching Pete and his wife raise three great kids and then harvest a bounty of grandchildren. I think a key measure of who we really are, away from the office, away from the courtroom, away from clients, is the character of our children. After tough days dealing with acrimony, how well do we unwind and take on the even tougher job of parent? Pete’s kids speak volumes about what a dedicated father he was. Even with a very busy law practice, Pete found the time to be with his kids in meaningful ways. They grew up as intelligent, respectful, caring young adults. A legacy any of us should be proud to have left.” 

The Celeste family was well represented. Pete, the avid fisherman, insisted that he teach his children and grandchildren to fish. They all caught their first fish with grandpa. The extremely well-behaved eight grandchildren were present, accounted for and well groomed. There was even a volunteer honor guard of “elderly” soldiers, sailors and marines in full regalia. A very impressive formal presentation of the flag to the widow was followed by a bugler blowing taps from the balcony. The reverberation in the church was a perfect blend of sound and nostalgia honoring Pete the veteran. The combination of religion and patriotism seemed perfect in this place and for a man like Pete. After all, weren’t all the disciples fishermen? Wasn’t the disciple Matthew a tax collector? And wasn’t Peter the “rock upon which the church was built?”

 A very typical blend of American patriotism and Catholic holiness combined with the love and admiration from Pete’s “typical successful American family” set the tone of the day. Just the way Pete wanted.

Lou Vigorita  specializes in workers’ compensation law at the Law Offices of Louis J. Vigorita, in Ventura.

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