Sparks of hospitality in the Hub City

November 19, 2006

To the editor:

Being Southern born and bred, I always thought we Southerners had a corner on hospitality. That is, until my wife and I visited Hagerstown.

On a hot summer day recently, we exited busy I-81 after a 5-hour trip from our home in Martinsville, Va.

The friendly clerk at Four-Seasons Sheraton, despite my Southern drawl, gave us a nice cool room. Hagerstown was our first stop on a seven-day vacation swing through Pennsylvania for two reasons - we had never been to Hagerstown, and it was a chance to visit our daughter-in-law's parents.

Unknowingly, my wife and I were about to embark on one of the most unforgettable nights of our lives.

I picked up the phone in our room and called Joe Startari.

"How in the world are you?" Joe greeted me.

For the past four years, Joe and I have shared "granddad" stories mostly by telephone since we are separated by 250 miles. Our friendship has spawned a tradition of trading tacky Christmas gifts. One year I got Joe a stick with four empty Budweiser cans dangling from fish line; it was called "Redneck Wind Chimes." That year he gave me a talking fish.


Joe seemed delighted that Myra and I had finally made it to Hagerstown. Afterall, we've been in-laws (and friends) with Joe and Dianne, his wife, for 15 years.

I could sense Joe wanted to give us the grand tour of Hagerstown. Although born in Brooklyn, N.Y., this feisty man moved his family to Hagerstown nearly 45 years ago to raise four children.

Now he's 75 and retired. And although Italian blood runs through his veins, Joe Startari loves Hagerstown and the good old USA. He served in the Korean conflict, both in the Army and Navy. He represents what Tom Brokaw calls America's "Greatest Generation."

As a youngster in Brooklyn, Joe Startari taught his Italian parents to speak English. They returned the favor, moving to Washington when he was a teen "to escape the influence of New York gangs." In Washington, his grandfather ran a dry cleaning business called "Carolina Cleaners." One day a robber stuck a gun in his face and demanded money. But the old man boldly refused and chased the gun-toting robber out of his store.

Joe's Catholic raising (that's a term us Southerners use to describe growing up) led him to his wife, Dianne. At a church dance nearly 50 years ago she was dancing with a guy who had "bad breath." Joe Startari innocently walked by and Dianne instinctively reached over and grabbed him and started dancing. Joe couldn't dance a lick, but he found a wife that night.

They were blessed with 4 children, one a Downs Syndrome child and another was oxygen-deprived at birth and now lives in an adult home.

Since retiring from the Department of Energy, Joe Startari has worked harder than ever. He was named Volunteer of the Year by the Maryland Association for Retarded Citizens for spending untold hours lobbying for the rights of the retarded. For years he has balanced the books for St. Joe's Catholic Church and also finds time to take little old ladies to church and the grocery store. Every week he visits old folks in nursing homes and the hospital. And these days it seems like there's a funeral to attend each week.

Still, Joe Startari finds time to play doubles tennis with friends, where, I am told, he can whip up on the best of 'em.

But let me get back to my story.

Joe and Dianne picked us up that evening at 5:30. Dianne suggested we eat at our hotel, but Joe took us to Nick's Airport Inn for dinner. We talked and laughed as we savored a glass of wine, oblivious to the gathering storm outside. But when the power went out, we got a little concerned. Our waitress, however, kept us in wine and assured us the power would be restored promptly.

After an hour, there was still no power and no food. So we got up to leave and Joe asked for our tab.

"Oh, no," the waitress said. "You didn't get any food, so the drinks are on the house."

We left hungry but smiling, either from the wine or the circumstances. We thanked our waitress and departed.

"We're going to Al Pomodoro," Joe announced, headed his van for downtown Hagerstown to show us the city in route.

The trip through town was refreshing. Being from Southern Virginia, where foreign competition has shut down our textile and furniture plants and many of our towns, we had our spirits lifted at the sight of Hagerstown. There wasn't anybody rolling up the sidewalks here. The streets were lined with folks doing things - eating, shopping and socializing. The buildings were clean and neat. And it seemed that many old structures had been renovated. All along the way Joe pointed to landmarks and new projects, sounding like a paid tour guide. The thought crossed my mind. Joe Startari is proud of his hometown. And his hometown should be proud of him.

The beauty and freshness of your downtown, Hagerstown, was a sight to behold in these days when many towns across our country seem to be dying . At least it took our minds off our hunger.

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