By JOE scalzo | firstname.lastname@example.org
On the day he buried his father, Joe Cassese began his eulogy with a story about the three bulletin boards hanging on the walls of Carmine L. Cassese’s Youngstown State University equipment office.
They were jam-packed with Post-it notes, inspirational quotes, T-shirt logos and family pictures, especially ones of his grandchild, Francesca.
“About 90 percent of the stuff packed to those boards had very little to do with the day-to-day operations of the equipment room or the MVR,” Joe Cassese said. “The most important posting on the board was an 81/2-by-11 [inch] piece of paper that had one of my father’s favorite quotes, if not the favorite: ‘It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.’
“That single piece of paper, and its 12-word quote, represented the day-to-day operations of Carmine Cassese,” he said.
That quote also helps explain how a simple restaurant owner/equipment manager could draw a standing-room-only crowd of 1,200 people to Tuesday’s funeral at St. Dominic Church on the city’s South Side.
The gathering — one of the largest in the church’s history — boasted a host of famous Youngstowners, including former YSU and Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel, who served as a pallbearer; and Nebraska coach Bo Pelini and Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, who both had to stand throughout the service because the church ran out of seats.
The crush began at Monday’s calling hours, where crowds began lining up at 12:15 p.m. and continued until 8:15. Chelsey Santucci, the owner/funeral director of Rossi & Santucci Funeral Home, estimated that 3,000 people attended the calling hours.
“It’s the biggest I’ve ever handled, and it was more than an honor to do so,” said Santucci, who added that getting 200 people at a funeral is typically considered big. “This was, by far, the biggest funeral Youngstown has seen in a long, long, long time. The magnitude of this can’t be put into words.”
Tuesday’s service focused on Cassese’s faith, generosity and work ethic. Monsignor Peter M. Polando praised Cassese as a “faith-filled Christian who aligned himself with Jesus.” But Monsignor Polando also kept things light, recalling that when he asked Cassese’s widow, Patty, how long his homily should be, she said, “As long as you want.”
“After talking to [sons] Joey and Frankie, we decided that 45 minutes should be enough time,” he said.
When the crowd erupted, he deadpanned, “Why are you laughing?”
Cassese died Friday night at age 57 after a four-month battle with pancreatic cancer, a loss that left his son, Frank, angry at God. But, Frank said, his father “never, ever wavered in his faith.”
“He told me, ‘Frank, this is just a part of life. It’s sooner than we all wanted, but it’s part of life,” he said. “Even on the day he died, he never dwelled on the negative.”
Frank praised his father’s example, saying Carmine never cared if he was with the CEO of the biggest company in the country or with a YSU custodian.
“All that mattered to him was they were a good person,” Frank said.
Joe Cassese’s eulogy was a series of thank-yous to his father.
For his work ethic. (When Carmine was a student at Ohio State, he would drive home on weekends to tend bar at his family’s restaurant and would often work 18-hour days between his job at YSU and MVR.)
For his love: “There was not a single day of my life that my father did not give me a hug or a kiss.”
For his guidance: Joe said he would call his father countless times a day, something that irritated his wife, Erica, until she started doing it, too.
And for his toughness: “No man deserves what you went through, especially the last week of your life. I want you to know I’m forever humbled by the last four nights I spent with you on the couch. No person will ever convince me that a tougher guy was born in Youngstown.”
Joe Cassese ended his speech by recalling that when Pope John Paul II died, the Italian women started clapping as they approached the coffin, which confused the spectators.
“It was explained to the viewers that they were celebrating a life well-lived and applauding his life,” said Joe, who then turned to his father’s coffin and said, “Dad, with all the love that I have for you in this world, I thank you, and applaud you, for a life well-lived.”
Then Joe started clapping and was joined by the crowd, which gave Carmine Cassese one last tribute — a standing ovation.