Hearts are no doubt heavy at Knack’s Parkview Cafe. Last week, regular visitors learned of the sad passing of one of their own, longtime customer Joseph Ristopolo, who died at age 101 on July 27 in Longwood, Florida after a short illness.
Before moving to Florida, Joe was one of the most memorable patrons at Knack’s.
That’s where I met and interviewed him back in July 2016. He was about to move away from the Falls and down to Florida where he went to live with his daughter.
Joe was the definition of a down-to-Earth, regular working man and our conversation was easy. We talked for a couple of hours about a wide range of topics, from his life as a “digger” and later a truck driver, to his love of hitting the road with wife as they toured all over the US.
My column on Joe was part of a package that earned me a second place award from some media organization, Associated Press I think, for column writing.
It still stands today as one of my favorite pieces because it focused on the kind of stories I like best — the ones about regular people who lead seemingly regular yet interesting lives.
On behalf of the newspaper, we offer his family members and all of his friends, especially those at Knack’s, our sincerest condolences.
In memory of Joe, I’m reprinting my original column today.
This column originally appeared in the July 31, 2016 edition of the Niagara Gazette:
There will soon be an empty chair at the back table inside Knack’s Parkview Cafe on Hyde Park Boulevard.
In a few weeks, Joe Ristopolo, a regular customer of some 17 years, will be heading off to start the next chapter of his life in sunny Florida.
He admits he’s not exactly “keen” on the idea, but the 98-year-old retired laborer and truck driver knows enough to follow the direction of his only daughter, who will be moving down south with him.
Joe was born in Avon, but has lived in the Falls since his family came here in 1919.
He never finished high school, leaving South Junior in the 10th grade. While he enjoyed learning, he struggled in one particular area.
“English was my worst subject,” he said. “I couldn’t conquer it.”
“The kid,” as he was known in his younger days, turned almost immediately to the school of hard work and ingenuity.
He started out shoveling snow for the Erie Railroad, moving piles of white stuff away from rail cars and from around switches. He’ll never forget St. Patrick’s Day in 1936 when Mother Nature’s fury buried everything in sight.
“I’m telling you that was really a snow storm,” he said. “I never seen so much snow. We only had one bulldozer in the city at that time. The rest was all snow shoveling.”
When it came to shoveling, Joe worked himself into being a professional.
He took a job with the Rock and Asphalt company of Buffalo, convincing the guy handing out picks and shovels to hire him using “a line of baloney” about having a sick mother.
He dug and dug and dug.
When someone needed another hole or trench, he dug some more.
It kept him busy, and employed.
“I got to be quite a worker,” Ristopolo said. “I was only 18 years old. I stayed until the job was finished. I did a lot of jobs for them.”
From digging, Ristopolo eventually worked his way into trucking. He hauled dynamite during the construction of the power project and worked for several local companies transporting chemicals and other materials. Whether with Simon Oil, Frontier Oil or Ashland Oil, he always tried to move as much product as he could as fast as he could so he could make as much money as possible.
His career included a 21-year-stint with Chemical Leaman where for the first time he drove a truck he managed to buy himself, with his own money.
His truck driving career proved pretty lucrative, mostly because he knew “how to hustle” and always remembered what his father taught him: work hard and “keep your eyes open, your mouth shut and listen.”
“I learned a lot during The Great Depression,” he said. “Things were tough then. We looked at a nickel like it was a dollar in those days.”
Joe used the money he earned to support his family, including wife, Viola, and their daughter. In the 1940s, Joe and his family settled down in a home on Fort Avenue. He’s been living in the house ever since, a total of 69 years.
Before his wife passed away in 1972, the couple enjoyed traveling together.
While Joe was a man of the road, he never tired of taking trips. The couple visited most states in the country, hitting favorites like California, Arizona and Nevada multiple times. His preferred mode of transportation will forever be pickup trucks. He owned two: one Ford and one Chevy. They carried him across many miles and on a lot of fun adventures.
“I loved to drive,” he said. “I always studied maps. I’d have all the roads in mind before we went anywhere.”
Wherever he roamed, Joe always came back to the Falls.
He’s not pleased with the current state of his city. He still blames former Mayor E. Dent Lackey for ushering in Urban Renewal, which he believes destroyed the best downtown had to offer.
He hardly ventures in the tourism district anymore and isn’t very impressed by all the talk of the new hotels or multi-million-dollar projects, including the North End train station.
He’d rather the city do simpler things — like fix the roads - and can’t understand how city leaders could “squander” all those tens of millions of dollars in casino revenue with so little to show for it.
He’s saddened by the condition of his beloved East Side neighborhood where he was raised as a child. It looks like a “desert” to him now.
“I saw a beautiful city go down the dumps,” he said. “When they knocked all the city down, the place looked like an atomic bomb hit it.”
Still, the Falls has been his home for decades and Knack’s Parkview Cafe has been his home away from home for years.
It won’t be easy saying goodbye.
But life moves on, even at 98.
“I’ve got a lot of friends here,” he said. “I’m going to miss them.”
He says he’ll leave with no regrets.
“I’ve worked hard all my life, but I had a good life,” he said. “If I had to do it all over, I would.”
Contact City Editor Mark Scheer at 282-2311, ext. 2250.