“Choose Your Friends Wisely”

My great grandfather, Pietro (Peter) Cafarelli, lived out his adult life at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. My mother can vividly remember her father Dominic, Peter's son, a soft-spoken and wise man of few words, telling her soberly to “be careful who you run around with,” marking the story of his father as testimony.

Peter Cafarelli was one of many Europeans to immigrate to the North Hill area of Akron, Ohio in the early 1900’s. Growing tensions between the mostly Irish police force and the Italian and Greek immigrants reached a boiling point just before the Great Depression. The Greeks and Italians were viewed as the dregs of society, living in the poorest neighborhoods scrounging for work in sometimes unsavory places.

The story goes that Peter was stealing chickens with two ‘associates,’ one of whom was carrying a firearm. Apparently, the other men were in the employ of a local mafia. Peter pleaded ignorance to this fact but could never prove it. Nevertheless, they were caught in the act and traded gunfire with the police. Tragically, one officer was killed. The man with the gun escaped while Peter and the other man were taken into custody. They were each tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

At this time in history the media engaged in what came to be known as “yellow journalism.” What ought to have been an unbiased factual report would often turn into columns colored by local opinion rife with racial and ethnic slurs. For example, an article from this very story ‘reports’ that Peter was a “dark Sicilian” despite the fact that he was not born in Sicily nor had he ever lived in Sicily.

My great grandmother always said that Peter was by no means a model citizen but he was no killer. He was simply doing the wrong thing (stealing chickens) with the wrong people (the Italian mob) at the wrong time. She struck a sad sight in the courtroom; another tired Italian mother, swollen with child and nursing her infant son, whose prospects of putting food on the table were now even more dim.

Later, my grandfather Dominic remembered visits to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus to see his incarcerated father. This prison was famous for its poor conditions, overcrowding and sweeping cholera outbreak of 1849. In 1893, a prison superintendent wrote, “Ten thousand pages of history would [not] give one idea of the inward wretchedness of its 1,900 inmates.”

On April 21, 1930, in one of the worst prison disasters in American history, a fire broke out on some scaffolding killing 320 inmates, some of whom died locked in their cells, and seriously injuring 130 after the roof eventually collapsed.

Peter died in the fire when his son Dominic was only 12 years old. Dominic would grow up without a father, living in squalor during the Depression. The county eventually came to take the children away from my great grandmother. This wisp of a woman allegedly barred the threshold with her broom, children behind her, and shouted in  broken English, “You take my children over my dead body!”

The county officials thought better of it and decided to leave the crazy Italian lady alone. Despite the tragedy of losing a husband and father and the hardship that resulted, each member of the family grew up to be upstanding citizens. St. Vincent DePaul, a Catholic organization that provided for the poor, did much to improve their physical situation. Later, my grandfather Dominic would be an active member.

To this day, some of the only advice my mother can remember from her dad was to “be careful who you run around with.” I got the same advice growing up. The impact the people around us can have on our lives is truly staggering. For better or for worse the company we keep rubs off on us. We all have stories of being torn down by the wrong kinds of friends. Hopefully we can have more stories of being built up by the right friends. Thank God for the church, a community of friends that sticks closer than family! (see Prov. 17:17; 18:24; 27:17)