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."
He relished doing whatever it took to make customers happy and he almost never missed a day of work. The eldest of his seven grandchildren, Windsor carpenter Anthony Dixon, said he's always strived to match his grandfather's work ethic.
"He's the biggest influence in my life," said Dixon, 55. "He grew up during the Depression and he knows that work is life."
Bassignani worked as a union butcher for nearly three decades prior to the early 1960s, when he started up his own meat counter inside Ray's Food Center. That's the market at Hearn and Dutton avenues that was operated for half a century by his nephews, Raymond Lazzini and the late Joseph Lazzini.
As hard as Bassignani toiled until the day he retired at age 66 in 1978, he has always appreciated that there really is the more to life than work. There is, for one thing, music.
He took up the drums as a kid, and as a young man played in a dance band that performed at Sonoma County grange halls, at clubs along the Russian River and elsewhere. His late wife, Santa Rosa native Mary (O'Halloran) Bassignani, was a musician and singer, too.
"She was a good dancer. We used to go down to Lena's and dance a lot," Bassignani said. They married in 1936 and moved into the house near Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital that has now been home to Bassignani for more than 75 years.
Though he was too young to serve in World War I, he was invited in 1936 to join the Drum and Bugle Corps of Santa Rosa's Theodore Roosevelt Post 21 of the American Legion. It needed a drummer.
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