At 100, life-long Santa Rosan Bassignani still plays in his beloved Drum and Bugle Corps

  • Nello Bassignani just turned 100. Portrait taken at home on Thursday, October 25, 2012.

    (Jeff Kan Lee/ The Press Democrat)

Nello Bassignani likes vegetables well enough, as you'd expect a vigorous 100-year-old would. But he knew long ago he didn't care to spend his life planting and plucking them.

As a kid in west Santa Rosa's Little Italy district, Bassignani helped his immigrant parents reap a lean living from a leased garden whose soil lies today beneath Dutton Avenue.

"Those raw carrots and turnips were good, out in the fields," he recalls, his face aglow with his characteristic smile.

He learned to work, hard, in those vegetable fields. Early in his teens he aspired to redirect his labor to something that would put more coins in his pocket.

He was 16 when grocer Louis Tonelli hired him to make deliveries for Pershing Market, then one of Santa Rosa's 30 or so grocery stores. He saved money while taking increasingly responsible jobs with the family markets that served the city of about 10,000.

While still at Santa Rosa High School, Class of 1934, Bassignani pulled $135 out of savings and bought a 1929 Ford. That was quite a feat for a teenager, especially then, in the depths of bitterly hard economic times.

A diligent sort eager to advance, young Bassignani jumped at the chance to learn a trade from grocer Quinto Furia, owner of the city's original Pacific Market.

"He started me out trimming bones for hamburger," Bassignani said. "Then he taught me how to skin a calf."

Bassignani became a butcher. His eyes lit up as a memory more than 80 years old sprang to mind.

"You know what they paid when I started in meat?" he asked. "Twelve dollars a week."

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