You don’t forget the day you met your very first best friend. Well at least I don’t! It was my first day of kindergarten at Guy Park Avenue School. I didn’t want my mom to leave me in Mrs Palazzole’s classroom on that traumatic morning in September of 1959 but she did any way. There were at least a half dozen kids in the room already crying and I was just about to join them when he sat down in an empty chair next to me. We just started talking to each other and we pretty much kept up that conversation for the next nine years. His name was Joe, his dad ran a radio station and he lived up on Fairmont Avenue.
We were both tall for our age, we both came from Italian heritage, we both had black hair and we were both a little chubby. We definitely had our differences. He loved the Dodgers and I was a Yankee fan, he wanted Nixon to win in 1960 and I was for Kennedy, he was a hillbilly and I was a river rat but there was no doubt about it, we were soul brothers. The first phone call I ever made in my life was to him and I still remember his number, Victor 25623. We both became enamored with American History and by the time we reached second grade, he and I were making our own Civil War epics consisting of hundreds of hand drawn battle scenes taped together in huge rolls. Our teacher, Betty Kent (God rest her soul) used to make the rest of the class sit there while we described each crayon produced scene in graphic detail.
I visited his house after school and he came to my birthday parties. One year, me, him and his little brother Phil marched in the Kiwanis Halloween parade as the Spirit of 76. We won a pen set, but so did everyone else. I’ll never forget the moon landscape he, I and John Belive built inside a huge cardboard box for our sixth grade science fair or how hard he laughed when the principal, Mr. Capece caught me doing a rather profane impersonation of the school janitor.
Once we got to Junior High we had completely different schedules and began making new friends. The very last time I went to his house he announced he was going to Bishop Scully the following September and we simply drifted apart after that.
Joe did great at Scully and got heavily involved working for his dad at WCSS. He went to Emerson College in Boston, graduated magna cum laude and then landed successive news correspondent jobs in North Carolina, Denver and Detroit, where he became a very popular television personality. His excellent work and high visibility in the Motor City landed him a job with ABC News as their midwest correspondent and all of a sudden, I was seeing my first best friend from Amsterdam, NY doing news reports on Nightline, Good Morning America and the Evening News anchored by Peter Jennings. By then, the chubby little Joe Spalletta I had met in kindergarten had been transformed into the dashingly handsome Joe Spencer and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that within a few years, he would be one of this country’s most watched and admired news reporters.
I reunited with Joe Spencer at Scully’s Class of ’72 Tenth Year Reunion. Ironically, Joe had met my wife Rosemary before I ever did and the two had become good friends as Scully classmates. We were so very happy to see each other again. The reunion was held in the picnic pavilions that used to be located behind the old Green Acres restaurant on Route 5, just west of Scotia. Joe and I sat at one of the picnic tables for at least an hour and a half catching up on each other’s lives. This was just before Joe landed the job with ABC and he was still living in Detroit. I was a member of the Amsterdam School Board at the time, working at GE and had just become a father for the third time a few months earlier. I was enthralled by Joe’s amazing professional accomplishments and he was equally interested in my career and my experiences as a board member and parent. We promised to stay in touch but of course we didn’t, which brings me to the last time I saw Joe Spencer alive.
It was early June in 1985 and I was sitting on the reviewing stand of Amsterdam’s Bicentennial parade on lower Guy Park Avenue waiting for Kirk Douglas and then NY State Governor, Mario Cuomo to arrive. I looked across the street and saw Joe Spencer waving to me. We hugged and once again caught up on each other’s lives. By then, Rosemary and I had had our fourth child and I had started my own publishing company and he was an up and coming star for ABC News based in Chicago and just about to get married. Before our conversation ended he said something that floored me. He told me that after he accomplished his career goals with ABC News he was seriously considering returning to our area and becoming a news anchor at one of the local television stations. He loved this area and he saw how happy his younger brother Phil was living here and raising a family. He hoped to join him. We exchanged business cards and we made plans to have dinner the next time I was in Chicago on business. We never did.
Six months later, in January of 1986, my first best friend lost his life in a pre-dawn helicopter crash. He was on his way to a Hormel meat plant in Austin, Minnesota to cover an employee strike-taking place there when the Bell-Jet Ranger aircraft flew into the ground in a heavy fog, killing Joe, his producer and the pilot.
A few days later, I sat with Rosemary in Mt. Carmel Church listening to Peter Jennings tell the hundreds of people gathered just how talented Joe Spencer was and how hard he worked to be the best. Then a young and not-yet famous Bill O’Reilly eulogized the man he described as his best friend.
I still have Joe’s ABC News business card and whenever I happen to see O’Reilly on TV I can’t help but think about how his last best friend was my very first.