You never forget your very first friends from grade school. I think for my generation at least it’s because on the first day of kindergarten our mothers simply abandoned us in a strange, imposing, high ceilinged room, where an elderly lady with a heavily lipsticked smile on her stressed face, made us sit as still and as quiet as possible in cold, uncomfortable wooden chairs while she droned on about where we were and what our daytime lives were going to be like from that point on.
The only thing our traumatized group of five year olds had for comfort and moral support were each other. So we bonded together like a litter of frightened puppies and formed relationships that eventually extended beyond the school day and ultimately, in many wonderful cases, have lasted a lifetime. Some of my fondest memories are of the fathers of my old Guy Park Avenue School classmates. Joey Spalletta’s dad owned a radio station and Joey Turo’s father an Esso gas station. Tommy DeLuca’s pop delivered mail and then worked nights at his basement letterpress, printing stag tickets, litterbags and wedding invitations. Richie Capel’s father drove a truck, Sean Hardies’ old man was an electrician and Melanie Olbrych’s father worked in his family’s dairy. Tony Greco’s dad worked at Sears, Kim Hoefs’ father covered sports for the Amsterdam Evening Recorder and Tommy DeBerry’s dad owned a driving range and miniature golf course. But the dad with the coolest professional skill was my friend Mary Jo’s father, Vince Condello. It wasn’t his day job at the local A&P that separated him from all the other pop’s because Tommy Testa’s dad worked there too. It was instead Mr. Condello’s other occupation that mesmerized me and my classmates.
I’ll never forget the day I found out. It was during my first-ever visit inside Mary Jo’s upstairs family flat on Division Street. As soon as we walked in, I saw a piano filled with more trophies than I’d ever seen in my life. A lot of them had flying birds mounted on top. That’s how and where I initially discovered that Mr. Condello was a pigeon racer. In fact, he was considered one of the best practitioners of this sport in the entire country.
Vince Condello was born in Amsterdam on April 17, 1924. He grew up on James Street, where he became good friends with guys like Eddie Buczek and Steve & Matt Popielarz who introduced their Italian neighbor to pigeon racing.
That interest was interrupted by World War II, when Vince joined the Marines and served in the Philippines. When peace came, Vince married the love of his life, Christine Coluni, in 1946. He also began his A&P career, which started in the old store that used to be located on Amsterdam’s Walnut Street and ended in 1980, when he retired as produce manager of the East Greenbush A&P.
The “postwar Vince” also had the time to pursue his boyhood passion. He was one of the officers of the Amsterdam Pigeon Racing Club, which used to be located on Lefferts Street in the East End. At one time this organization had as many as 40 members.
Pigeon racing competitors send their birds to the same starting point, hundreds of miles away. All the pigeons are released at the same time and they fly back to their respective home roosts. Each one carries a labeled rubber band like countermark around one of its legs. As soon as each pigeon arrives at their home, the owner removes the countermark, puts it in a capsule and time stamps the bird’s official arrival time using a special timer. The capsules are then collected at the sponsoring clubhouse where the winner is determined. It really is a very involved sport.
Some of the best racers travel at speeds exceeding 80 and even 90 miles an hour and Vince had pigeons that could complete a 600-mile race in less than a day. The secret was breeding and then training and nobody in this town was better at both than Mr. Condello. He was actually accorded national All-American honors twice during his racing career.
Vince wasn’t in the sport because he loved trophies or awards. The betting pools for the events used to get quite sizable and rumor has it that today’s Birthday Celebrant once won $12,000 from a single event. That’s a lot of pigeon feed folks!
That clubhouse on Lefferts Street was also equipped with a nicely stocked bar and meetings used to get pretty lively as well. There was a close camaraderie among this community’s pigeon racing fraternity and since clubs from different cities used to race each other that camaraderie extended to most of upstate New York.
In addition to breeding pigeons, Vince was pretty good at breeding Condello’s as well. He and Christine were wonderful parents of a quartet of kids. I already mentioned Mary Jo. Her older brother Tony is a retired fireman who still lives in town and served as my technical consultant for this post. They also have an older brother John who now lives in Georgia and a younger sister Pattie, who I believe just recently moved back to New York state after living in California for many years.