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The Power of Place and Purpose

Keene State is more than a college. It is a place where geography and family history meet. The campus Maria Dintino walks every day was her grandparents' backyard, a piece of land they turned into a garden a century ago.

Maria Dintino photo by Mark Corliss On January 25, 1909, a 16-year-old boy boarded a boat in Napoli, Italy, bound for the United States. He was on a journey to Keene, New Hampshire, to reunite with his father, who had come here from Italy 10 years earlier in search of a better life. This boy was leaving the life he'd known in Torre de Passeri, Abruzzo, Italy. As his father had, he left his mother and three sisters behind, hoping to establish a life free from destitution.

What does this boy who immigrated to Keene 100 years ago have to do with Keene State College? This boy, Fiore D'Intino, made his home on the land that is now this campus. He lived here for more than 60 years. This land and community offered him an opportunity to create a meaningful and fulfilling life. If you believe in the power of place and purpose, then you'll see that this place continues to offer this opportunity.

Annie and Fiore Dintino photo courtesy Maria Dintino

Annie and Fiore Dintino, the author's grandparents, in their bountiful garden at 60 Butler Court, 1970.

Two years later, in 1911, Fiore and his father, Carmine, sent for Fiore's mother, Carmela, and two younger sisters, and they moved into a house at 76 Butler Court. Thus began the Dintinos' residency on this land. Fiore's older sister, Antoinette, came over a little later with her husband and children.

When Fiore first arrived, he spoke very little English and had had little formal education, three years of school at the most. One of the first things he did was register for an English language course offered here in town. Since most of the people enrolled in the course at that time were Greek, he learned to speak both Greek and English! Fiore had a knack for languages and a great love of learning. I am told that for pleasure he'd read the encyclopedia page by page. Fiore was also passionate about opera; he'd sit and listen with tears running down his cheeks.

After meeting up with his father, Fiore worked briefly on the railroad, the largest employer in Keene, but then took a job at a new manufacturing firm in town, the Wilcox Comb Company located on Ralston Street. In 1917, he seized the opportunity to become a U.S. citizen by joining the army and fighting in World War I. When he returned, he bought his own house at 60 Butler Court and in 1919, married my grandmother, Annie Ciandella (Candello), a marriage that many say was arranged some years earlier. This is when my grandparents officially began to establish their own cherished home and life together on this land.

Carmine and Victor Dintino photo courtesy Maria Dintino

Annie and Fiore's sons Carmine and Victor, just before Carmine was sent to Europe during World War II.

Like so many, Fiore and Annie worked hard every day and cared for other people – their own extended family as well as neighbors and others in the community. Their first child, son Carmine, was born in 1923, then two daughters, Caroline and Lucia, and finally, their youngest, Victor, my dad, in 1937. They took their modest house and fertile parcel of land on Butler Court and spun a rich and treasured life for their family. They knew they could not have had this same life in Italy, where they had nothing and there was little opportunity.

I remember this place vividly, the shade of the grape arbor, rambling berry bushes, dripping fruit trees, an array of flowers, and a massive garden.

Of utmost importance in Fiore's life were his yard and garden, and there he created an absolute oasis. I remember this place vividly, the shade of the grape arbor, rambling berry bushes, dripping fruit trees, an array of flowers, and a massive garden. He created a little piece of paradise, cultivated with wisdom and care, and shared with those who were lucky enough to know it existed.

Fiore's garden had the usual tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, peas, lettuce, radishes, carrots, beets, cucumbers, and more, but it also had many different kinds of greens, celery, corn, and potatoes. What I remember most are the fava beans: peeling the string, opening the pod, and savoring each crispy bean inside. My grandmother would spend weeks canning everything from the yard and garden. I'm told she canned something called the ‘garden special.' Those glass jars would contain all the vegetables you needed to make a healthy soup or stew at any point in the winter.

Dintino family photo courtesy Maria Dintino

Author Maria and her siblings in "Tata's garden," summer of 1970. Clockwise from lower left: Carmine (6), Theresa (8), Cecilia (12), Laura (11), Maria (9), and David (5).

Fiore and Annie did not formally teach their children Italian. Instead they wanted their children to speak English and to assimilate in a way that would make their lives easier and that would signify that they were American. Where they held tight to what they knew and loved from Italy was in the garden, wine, and foods they prepared. Most families on Butler Court also had gardens with the same idea in mind.

When my dad was young, the neighborhood children spent hour upon hour skating on Brickyard Pond in winter and fishing for perch, eels, and pickerel in spring. They dug up the thick clay in the pond, used to make bricks, for 25 cents a day. Although our family had little direct connection to the College, my aunts, now in their eighties, recall their mother making them dress up each May and sit on the little hill in front of Huntress Hall to view the graduation ceremony. This was always an exciting event. Visiting the goldfish pond in the yard at the President's house was also a highlight.

Fiore's oldest son, Carmine, eventually dropped out of high school and joined the army. I'm sure everyone was proud of him, especially his little brother, my dad. When Carmine died on D-Day, in June of 1944, on a beach in Normandy, my family's hearts were crushed, and their grief lasted a long time.

In 1909, when Keene Normal School was created, this area was a diverse and vibrant neighborhood known as Little Italy. The Grossi, Caldarelli, DiGiulio, DiLorenzo, Costantino, Furlone, DiLuzio, Candello, Alonzo, Colantino families and others joined the Dintinos. As the College grew, it began to surround and encroach on this community. Eventually Spaulding Gym sprung up behind my grandfather's garden, and then Carle Hall was constructed at the end of Butler Court, just beyond his land. I was too young to understand the deals and the emotions around this transformation, but I know it was hard for the residents to see their beloved neighborhood disappear home by home. Yet my grandparents coped with it, and my grandfather put vegetables out on a little table for the students. They coexisted nicely for a number of years.

My grandparents lived at 60 Butler Court until 1972, when my grandfather, the boy who arrived here at age 16, passed away at the age of 80. The College then offered my grandmother a lifetime lease at 81 Blake Street, where she and my aunt Caroline lived for 21 years, until my grandmother's passing in 1994. Soon after my grandfather's passing, the house at 60 Butler Court that was like a castle to me was demolished and an Owl's Nest complex was built on the land. To this day, one of my grandfather's apple trees stands there, strong and proud.

Now all that remains of this neighborhood are fond and precious memories and Fiore's sister's house, the little laundromat right next to Carle Hall. I was once a child running around in my grandfather's yard and skipping up and down the sidewalks of Butler Court, totally absorbed in the richness of that home and neighborhood.

Years later I enrolled here to earn my master's degree, and today I work on this campus. It's fitting that in my position in the Aspire program I work with many first-generation college students and am able to see firsthand the opportunities individuals are still reaping in this place and the ways in which lives are enriched by being here. Just as it was for my grandparents and great-grandparents 100 years ago, people here are in pursuit of their dreams, and to me, this is powerful homage to all those who came before.