Nick Virgilio (1928-1989)
by Fr. Michael Doyle
Nick! How often I said it!
Is he "killing us softly" or is he putting a bit of strength into us? I opt for the second, that all of us will be more vital and better because Nick Virgilio lived among us.
my spring love affair:
the old upright Remington
wears a new ribbon
Two days ago I went down with another man to bring back his body. It was a sad errand indeed, remembering the bright eyes of the man going to this great occasion two days before, and now coming back with closed, cold eyes and a terrible stillness. Flat in a station wagon. When we got there and went into the funeral home and found his dear body, it was wrapped in white from neck to toe. At the first sight I thought: he looks like a Buddha (he was like the monks who came here), but the head was jutting out there with such determined posture...he was like an old Roman head on a coin, strong and enduring. I think of the lines of a famous Roman, which we would have to change for Nick. We dare not say: we came to bury him but we came to praise him. Because if we tried to bury him it would be like trying to bury a spring well, it would be up before we had it down. We would have to think of him like that...out of the water and out of himself. He cut himself into little stars and they're in high heaven and they will enlighten the world. We didn't have to do it!
He died on us. The bell is tolling and hurting us, but we have to be sturdy, as he was, and go on with it. Go on with it strongly as ever. That is what we want to say to each other and especially to his family and to his brother (little Nick they called him), but the other day Tony said to me: "I was his father". Our sympathy goes to Tony, who buried his mother a month ago and grieves for his brother today. To his aunts and cousins and to ourselves, because we feel sorry for ourselves in a way. We must have sympathy for ourselves.
We should have known, Tony, because only six days before he died, an ill wind came and burst a hole in this church that is 40 feet long and 25 feet wide. We're sitting under a canvas. We should have known that there was some disruption coming, of great cosmic consequence that Nick would die because he was our most vital link to the whole universe. So we gather in this church, which is bandaged, to praise Nick Virgilio. There's a hole in our heart but the light will shine through it. The light will shine through it. And the best thing that we can do is what people have done since the beginning of time with their sorrow and that is to tell stories over and over again and to write our own. Nick Virgilio will be a catalyst within your heart and mind and belly and body that will energize and demand of you a high consciousness for every last step of your life. That will be it. He will stir the water. He will be that angel that will stir it within yourself and you will never stop being alive. So we will try to tell the story.
It was on the 25th of October in 1928 that Nunciata Frumento, his godmother, carried him into Mt. Carmel church, in Camden, (a few blocks from here) and he was baptized into the water. His birth had occurred four months before, on June 28, 1928. Born in West Jersey Hospital in Camden, the first child of Anthony Virgilio and Rose Alemi. He was named for his grandfather, a tough, hardy farmer from Somerdale. "Tough as nails," Nick often said. "He'd belt you at the drop of a hat if you didn't pick enough string beans for him." His middle name came from his father, Anthony, a gentle, gracious man who played the violin in the Haddonfield Orchestra. He played Bach for Rose Alemi, shortly after he met her. Maybe she never liked Bach all that much, but she loved Anthony Virgilio until death parted them in 1979. They had a great, great marriage, happy as could be, and as Nick told me, (and Tony too) he never saw them have a fight. Whatever fights they had were soft as a snowfall. mind for over 50 years.
He grew up, initially I think, at 1010 So. 4th Street, up near Mt. Carmel Church, and for a while on Webster Street. He moved to Woodlynne in '32. Eleven months after Nick was born in 1928, Tony arrived. So Anthony and Rose had two sons in eleven months and a terrible depression hit the world. These boys arrived at the worst of times or the best of times. But shortly after 1932, the family moved to Newton Avenue in Camden, 987 Newton Ave. and there they lived until 1939. Nick went first to Broadway School here in Camden, and Tony too. His grades are still in his home, in the attic where his father kept them. His grammar school grades: first, second, third, and fourth grade. And in his fourth grade report card, which I looked at last night, under conduct, it had four categories of conduct, and written across them slant-wise were two words: "he talks." He was ten years old. It was 1938 and he never got over it. When he was in second grade the teacher had a show in the schoolyard and he asked her, "Who is going to be the emcee?" Couldn't you imagine it? He was asking who was going to be the emcee and knowing what that meant. The teacher said, "You." He came home and told his mother and she constructed for him his first microphone. It is not so long ago that he read the poem he wrote (I think it was in '76) remembering his mother making him the microphone. He never got over that either. Here it is. He could read it much better than I can.
My ingenious mother, alone
Fashioned the home made microphone
From two tops of salt boxes
Two discs of wire...screwed
Fitted with glue
To a broom handle in the base of a basket
To stand in place
Fashioned the little emcee too.
The second grader took his cue
And introduced the schoolyard play
Of Holland in the month of May
With boys and girls in Dutch costume,
And wooden shoes
Tulips in bloom
When everything came alive
In the spring of 1935.
So you can see where he was heading...this man of words. This warrior of words. He would be standing in front of that broom handle and speaking into saltboxes the rest of his life...making sense. Let no one dare to question it! Making sense. The family moved to 1092 Niagara in February of1939. Tough times they were. They moved to Yorkship School for the rest of fifth grade, sixth, seventh, and eighth. One year in Hatch Jr. High and two in Camden High. He graduated in 1946. The grades in junior and senior year! They were not great, Nick! They were not great! And the conduct was worse. Tony told me that nick was just too vital. How could you keep him down? You just couldn't. How are you going to put him in a concrete box and keep him quiet with forty kids? You just couldn't do it.
When he got out of school he used his head. Tony says of him that even as a kid he was always figuring, moving ahead, thinking, a serious boy. In 1946 he knew that the GI bill wouldn't be around to long. Consequently he jumped on it and entered the Navy not to be a Navy man, but to money for education. Smart boy this Nicholas Anthony, wasn't he! Smart boy! He went into the Navy and hated it. He was on night watch (that sounds strange when I say it now) he was on the night watch of the ship, but he volunteered for laundry to get out of watching. He hated the Navy, but he stayed in for two years. Starting in Bainbridge, Maryland, he went overseas to Paris and London (hated them too), but he came back and went to school here at South Jersey College, now called Rutgers Camden. He did well in college and in two years graduated and went to Temple taking courses in English and radio work. He did well there too and his family had a happy day when they were all invited to Temple University in 1952. A young graduate in June. Looking at his grades in radio, "his posture was good, his talking was good, and his gestures were good." He was a man who could stand in front of that old hand made microphone. He went to work on the radio in Myrtle Beach (I think) and from there he went to Coatsville, Pa and Wildwood. He was a sportscaster. He wasn't good at sports. Awkward. He was a very sickly baby. He told me that when he was a child, he cried constantly with colic and rheumatic fever. He was a bundle from the beginning (Nick) to his dear mother. He loved sports, baseball and football, and so he began to use his words. His words were the way he would play the game. Then he went to Dallas (I don't know what year that was), but he went out there to do radio work and did well. But after some time, several people were laid off and Nick was laid off. In addition, he had a serious sadness out there. A relationship that was dear to him didn't work out and it broke his heart.
Nick entering Sacred Heart for Pentecost Mass, 1988
He came back to Camden driving an old car that he abandoned, and that was the end of cars for him. He did work then for Camden and Philadelphia radio stations with Jerry Blavat and his kind of dance music. He was also a jazz emcee as well. He liked jazz, liked interviewing people and all of that. But the heartbreak, the eruption in his body and being that had occurred for him, broke loose some little avenue of expression. In that time of healing and effort, Nick Virgilio found the little stream, the tiny river by which he could pour forth the beauty of his soul. It was haiku poetry that he found, and through it, the bursting light inside of him found charming little avenues of expression and poured forth from him ever since. In 1967 his brother, Larry, was killed in Vietnam, and it broke the family's heart. In that scene of tragedy, with his ailing mother whom (he told me a month ago) died when Larry died, Nick was a faithful man. Day by day, experiencing what he did, (he had no interest in making much money) all he wanted was to shepherd "his little children"-his haiku- onto the world stage. It was his life's ambition that he would lead them on and fight off whatever would stop them, that the little offspring of Nick Virgilio would take their place in the world and he made sure they would. He was not only the writer with the broken heart who could scratch beauty out of desolation, he was also the salesman and the protector and promoter of that which he wrote. He mined those desolate things that we all shudder from. He looked at them with a keen eye and found little bits of beauty in unlikely places and that's why he's our glory. He took this place, this place Camden, he took the broken bits of it and made it into diamonds.
He has been compared to Whitman and the two men could not be more unlike each other. At a time when this country was a sophomore...energetic, powerful, eager, overworked, and dominant, Whitman tried to put all the movement of the nation to the music of his ever-expanding words. His Camden was a bustling city with its wharfs and ferryboats, its factories and its people. Whitman could grab onto that. But Nick Virgilio came along and his Camden was poor as a plucked chicken and he elevated its tragedy in kernels of beauty that will be the stars of our future. That is his greatness. In the midst of that which was failing and that which was desolate and that which was dead, he broke life out of it and God bless him for it. It was a great, great achievement! And he poured out his life doing it.
It was all right that he died in Washington, D.C. It was all right. Maybe that tired town of too many words will be the better because his last breath went out into it. And who can ever tell the majesty of that! The value and the repercussion of that last breath of his effort to communicate with the world! It should be there and that's where it should be. That's where it should be.
He died at a point launching his word, he thought, coast to coast. Let it be heard there and far beyond, far beyond!
Nick Virgilio was long dead before he died. He had given back every ounce of blood and sweat. There's a poem that I found from Nikos Kazantakis, that he wrote about dead in his wonderful work, The Odyssey. It says: death you came with your scythe but you didn't have much to kill. This is the poem and it's just made for Nick:
Let Death come down to slavish souls and craven heads
with his sharp scythe and barren bones, but let him come
to this lone man like a great lord to knock with shame
on his five famous castle doors, and with great awe
plunder whatever dregs in his life's dreadful strife
have not found time to turn in his strong body from flesh
till they escaped you in pure spirit, for when you come,
you'll find but trampled fires, embers, ash and fleshly dross.
For Nick it was written. It had to be!
One of the great wonders of Nick is that a man so different could survive. He had that determination to be himself and it's hard to be yourself in this world of excessive media formation. In Nick's words "get a load of this" (it might be in the middle of a hug for peace at Sunday Mass, you'd get the hug), but also "listen to this"! On Nick's first visit to Dr. Cheetham, the doctor walked into the room and there he was, standing on his head in the corner, and he said to the doctor, "do you mind if I talk to you from here?" And Dr. Cheetham said, "No". I was thinking about that incredible scene. Which of us would have the courage to do such a thing? Can you imagine going to the doctor and coming into the office, and he or she finding you on your head! "Can I talk to you from here!" So Nick, wherever you are, talk to us. You may have walked on your head for your whole life. You were so different and we say: Nick, now you landed on your feet. You landed on your feet.
God bless him! He was wonderful. We will miss him, we will miss him awfully. But we should have known that this man would go up in spirit. We should have known that he would go quickly. He cane over on Monday and it was his last visit to Sacred Heart before he left for Washington the next day. He had some turkey, found the wishbone, pulled it out like a child and said to Rosemarie Harle, "I found the wish bone, it's lucky." She said, "You have to break it before you get your wish." (There's a haiku there somewhere. If only we had Nick.) Nick was broken, he was broken to get his wish. And we say that God took the good part of it and left us the bone.
When I visited his home the other day, Tony and I went down to his little seedbed of life in his basement. There were two sheets of haiku lying there by the typewriter that he left before he went to Washington and a pencil, limp on a haiku. This was one of them:
starting the New Year
with congestive heart failure
fighting down the fear.
But he made it through. He made it through. And so we're here to honor him and to gather up his life, all the little bits of it. When I went down last night to his basement to pick up the typewriter, lying on top of it was another haiku and it wasn't there before. Tony said, "I was throwing out the trash, and I found this one, and I laid it across the typewriter." This came out of the trash yesterday, one that he threw away. Rescued:
on a rose petal
settled on the little coffin
a firefly glows.
Well anyway, we entrust him to God with all the little bits of him in every little trashcan in the back of our minds, in the back of our hearts. We gather up his life from the very first day that he gave his first breath in Camden on June 28, 1928 (a warm day I'm sure), to his last breath in George Washington Hospital, 23rd Street in Washington, at 2:10 pm, on the 3rd of January, 1989. Everything that happened, every smile and laugh...every time he got on your nerves and got into your heart and got inside you. Every time he poked with his pen in the pain of things and found some life. Everything. We gather it up and offer it to God.
Sacred Heart will always remember Nick Virgilio. We will remember. Finally, I will end with the wonderful words of Walt Whitman in his lament for Lincoln:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn
with every returning spring.
Transcript of the eulogy given for Nick Virgilio, by his friend Michael Doyle. Recorded in Sacred Heart Church, Camden, NJ, on Saturday, January 7, 1989. Nick Virgilio, the great haiku poet, died suddenly in Washington, D.C., on January3, 1989. Having become ill during the taping of a segment interview for the CBS TV program Nightwatch, he died two hours later in George Washington University Hospital at 2:10pm.
Nick Virgilio is buried at Harleigh Cemetary in Camden. Not far away in the same cemetary is buried Walt Whitman.