Manchester icon 'Pal Joey' takes his last walk

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MANCHESTER — Joseph Diaferio died April 15 at the age of 88, provoking an outpouring of thoughts and memories of the man who, for so many, was simply "Pal Joey."

Diaferio was a regular sight walking the streets of Manchester, stopping in at businesses to chat and collect the bottles and cans they saved for him.

A colorful dresser, Diaferio was an affable guy, often stopping to talk to perfect strangers about the weather, news of the day or religion.

Despite the fact Diaferio spent much of his time gathering cans and bottles, he wasn't down on his luck or trying to get by. Those cans and bottles were turned into cash and the money used to buy food for the Community Food Cupboard.

People who knew Diaferio said he was a friendly guy with a heart of gold. The kind of guy who never met a stranger and if he did he set about to make that person a friend. But, most of all, he was someone who wanted to do good, to help people who needed help, and to make a difference in the world.

When he moved to Vermont 18 years ago, he was new to town and freshly retired. For a guy who had worked all his life, the days were long and empty. He needed something to do and saw collecting empties as a way he could do some good in his new community.

"He decided there was enough money in that he could buy food for the poor," his daughter Nancy Diaferio said. "He'd spend hours going around town."

She said her father, who liked to speak in rhymes, called it his "mission without a commission."

Nancy Diaferio shared the story of the time a woman saw Pal Joey digging through the trash for empties and mistook him for a homeless man.

She walked up to him and handed him a $20 bill, which he tried to refuse but she was adamant. After she left, he took the money to the store and bought things for the food cupboard.

Helping people

Diaferio said her dad just wanted to help.

"His thing was helping people," she said.

Manchester Town Clerk Anita Sheldon saw that and added that he didn't want credit. Despite years of knowing him, he never mentioned that he was donating the cans and bottles people in the clerk's office saved for him to the Community

Food Cupboard.

"We didn't know what he was doing with the money," Sheldon said. "He was always looking for a way to help others and never wanted the credit for it. You couldn't find a nicer man. He always wanted to do a good deed."

At the Community Food Cupboard, Administrator Martha Carey said they would miss Pal Joey.

"We are so saddened to hear of Pal Joey's passing and we'll miss him very much," Carey said. "He had a positive and generous spirit and he engaged everyone he met with his whole heart."

Emmy McCusker is a former president of the food cupboard and remembers Pal Joey as a colorful dresser who was deeply religious and quite a conversationalist.

"He certainly voiced his concerns about doing good for others," McCusker said. "He was a very kind and gentle person. It's certainly a loss for the community."

Son of immigrants

The son of immigrants from Corato, Italy, located just miles from the Adriatic seacoast in the region of Puglia, Diaferio was born and raised in Queens, and grew up a Nets fan.

He had a brother, Louie, and a younger sister, Mary, along with two daughters, Nancy of Manchester and JoAnn Diaferio of Long Island.

Nancy Diaferio said he was a classic guy from Queens. He married, had kids and got on with the business of life without fanfare.

In his career, Diaferio was a numbers guy, a man who had been a controller of New York printing company and had worked for IBM where he had a plaque that said, "Think" on his desk.

She said he liked to travel and they would travel around the country but her dad would never ask for directions.

After he retired in 2000, his daughter Nancy Diaferio and her husband, Al Scheps, convinced him to move to Manchester, where they operated Al Ducci's in 2001.That launched Pal Joey's 18-year stint on the streets of Manchester.

Transportation

Diaferio lived with epilepsy and gave up his driver's license decades ago. When he came to Manchester, he went places on foot and rarely accepted rides.

"He would never take a ride. He'd get mad," Nancy Diaferio said. "Only toward the end of his life would he accept rides from people."

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But that didn't limit his range. If he wanted to go somewhere, he walked.

Despite progressing through his 70s and 80s, he regularly walked from the area around Al Ducci's to Shaw's supermarket and back. But he also went to Town Hall, which is a 2.6-mile round trip from the main roundabout and up to Dutton's Farm Stand, a 3.2-mile round trip. One time he walked to the Norman Rockwell Museum, which is about 9 miles one way because he didn't want to ask for a ride, Nancy said.

Walk and talk

Walking wasn't just his transportation, it was what he liked to do because it took him to the people.

"His favorite thing to do was to walk around town and talk to strangers," Nancy Diaferio said. "He would talk about the world, the troubles of the day, religion. He was gone all day."

Walking is also where he earned his other nickname: The Peace Man.

As he became well-known, people would tap their horns when they saw him to say hello.

Pal Joey would flash the peace sign each time.

"He'd wave to them and flash them the peace sign," his daughter said.

He'd also make his rounds, Nancy said, to visit women in the stores and collect their cans and bottles.

"He loved the women," Nancy Diaferio said. "He knew all the women in town. He'd go visit them and they'd save their cans and bottles. Some even brought them to the house."

Fashion sense

Many people mentioned Pal Joey's fashion sense, which ranged from a formal top hat and tails to "colorful" clothing involving stripes, polka dots and bright colors.

"He would say, 'I have a passion for fashion,'" Nancy Diaferio said. "He was quite the coordinator."

She said he has about 500 pairs of socks that she'll be looking to donate along with his other clothes.

Pal Joey came by his fashion through his family, several of whom worked in fashion in New York City.

When he moved to Vermont, it took him some time to adjust to the style in the Northshire and tone down his church attire.

"He would dress up and go to church," Nancy Diaferio said. "Little by little he began to realize that Vermont wasn't like that."

Housebound

While he lived with epilepsy, Pal Joey was more recently diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and began to slow down, Nancy Diaferio said.

She said it didn't slow him down much at first as he still made his rounds. But in time, his longer walks were limited and he kept to a smaller area.

In September, he fell in the driveway and was confined to the house from that point on.

"It was the worst thing for him," Nancy Diaferio said. "He wanted to get out and, as he says, 'walk and talk.'"

He turned 88 on April 3. He died April 15 of heart failure, five days short of the anniversary of his move to Manchester.

Nancy noted that the man who spent his life working with numbers and hating rain died during Monday's deluge on Tax Day.

She said that serving as a caregiver for her father in his final months would not have been possible without the support of her husband, but she also credited the Visiting Nurses Association and Hospice of the Southwest Region and Northshire Rescue for their help."There are angels among us," Nancy Diaferio said. "I could not have done this without them."

Pal Joey didn't want a service. He will be cremated.

Nancy Diaferio said that if anybody was inclined, a donation to the food cupboard would be a great way to honor Pal Joey.

While there will be no service, the CFC's Martha Carey shared something he would often tell her.

"Pal Joey would often tell me that he had come into the world a zero and he was going to do whatever he could to go out a hero," Carey said. "He did."

Contact Darren Marcy at dmarcy@manchesterjournal.com or by cell at 802-681-6534.


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