[Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of ‘Faces of New Canaan,’ a weekly feature where we talk to residents who make up the fabric of this community. Again, these aren’t the people who are noteworthy for job titles, fame or any other achievements that you know about—yet you probably recognize them from around town. If you’d like to nominate someone for the series, do so in the comments thread below.]
This week we talk to Tom Sirico, a lifelong New Canaan resident who will turn 91 in April. A staple of the morning crew at Dunkin’ Donuts on Elm Street, you may recognize Tom from a favorite seat along the bench, nearest the workers, where the regulars gather at about 8:30 a.m. weekday mornings. He’s a good example of what another Tom, journalist Tom Brokaw, called “the greatest generation”: growing up in the Great Depression and then serving in World War II before returning home to work in the post-war boom.
Peruse through the attached photos that document some of Tom’s life here in town and the short video we shot just after the interview transcribed below.
Here’s a ‘thank you’ to you, Mr. Sirico, for your candor here and for everything you’ve done for and meant to New Canaan and beyond. It truly was a privilege to sit down with you. See you soon at Dunkin's.
Patch: When and where were you born?
Tom Sirico: April 17, 1922. Born on Hoyt Street during the Depression—1922, the big Depression. We used to have our own garden with chickens and pigs, that’s how we got along.
Brothers and sisters?
Yes, I have a brother John Sirico and a sister Margaret. She’s 89 and John is 88. We all live in New Canaan.
Where do you live?
Up on Brushy Ridge. Built the house myself (see photo).
Where did you go to school?
Went to New Canaan High School, class of 1942 (see photo). I was chosen best athlete in my class, and class president from junior high school all the way up through senior high school.
What has changed the most in New Canaan since the time you were growing up here?
The roads. The roads were just grass and they had a horse and buggy, and they came in from Norwalk to go to our churches. Then eventually they put in 123, that concrete road, and that helped during the Depression because then they built bridges there and they had to cement them and that put people to work.
And what about more recent changes?
It changed when these millionaires and stuff from Greenwich and Darien moved in and they wanted the best schools in town and our taxes shot up sky high. You know, they could afford it and that was it. That hurt us.
Who’s someone important to New Canaan in your experience of the town here that people who moved in more recently may not know about?
Walter Stewart. He had a store there, it was down on Main Street and then he moved it up to where they are now. Take poor people like me, my family. He wouldn’t charge us for anything, for any of the food. He was a very good person.
(At this point another member of the regular crew at Dunkin’s—Tony Ruggiero, 83, a retired housing contractor—leaned over: “I do not mean to interrupt you, but he [Tommy] was married when the war started. He didn’t have to go, but he ended up joining the Navy and spent four years. Isn’t that something? He didn’t have to go, but thought it was his duty to serve.”)
Thanks, Tony. Tom, tell me about your service.
It was 1942 or 1943. I enlisted in 1942 and I was there until 1946. Went into the Pacific. Name the island and I was there. We went there. Saipan, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal. I entered as 2nd-class petty officer. I was a gun captain in a 3-inch 50 [caliber gun.] My job—I tell everybody, I kid with them, but I’m not kidding with you—my job was when that gun went off and I see the kamikazes coming down, I had to say ‘The breach is clear.’ To this day I don’t know what the inside of one of those 3-inch-50s looks like. There was a ‘hot shellman’ would throw them out of the gun tub onto the deck below, and then we had the other ‘cold shellman’ would throw them out into the water, onto the beach.
I don’t think many of us could imagine what it’s like to stand on a naval ship deck with kamikazes flying at you.
I feel bad about it. I mean, these were 17-, 18-year-old kids and the Japanese, Hirohito, they’re telling these kids that if they go down then they’ll go to heaven, and I’ll tell you what, they only had enough gasoline to get there. That son of a gun. That I felt bad about.
When you returned from the war, from service, you started a family. Is that right?
We had two boys after a while. I was married 67 years (see video). Antoinette Spadaccini. S-P-A-D-A-C-C-I-N-I. She was from Summer Street in New Canaan. I came back. And I intercepted five passes in semipro football. A record that’s never been beaten to this point. Tied but not beaten.
What was the name of that team?
New Canaan Maroons.
Were you married here in town?
I’m Catholic, and my wife too. We got married at St. Aloysius. It was Father Fox was the priest.
You have talked about those 67 years as the best in your life.
They were. The best.
What’s your advice to young people. You’re 90 years old, you lived through the Great Depression and World War II. You stayed married 67 years and here you are driving yourself around New Canaan. What do you say to young people?
You know what my theory of life is? Live every day like it’s the last day of your life. And I love helping people without any money. I will go down and buy them dinners, stuff like that. A lot of people that come in, I’ll buy them coffee or whatever.
That’s very generous. Tell me about what you did for a career.
Plumbing and heating. I come in after the war, this friend of mine says, ‘You looking for a job?’ I said, ‘What is it?’ Says, ‘It’s plumbing. You looking for a trade?’ So I says ‘Yes.’ I go see Mr. Clarence Bouton, and he says, ‘Are you willing to work?’ I says, I told him, ‘I made the high school Hall of Fame. I’ll stand up with any man you have.’ ‘I want to tell you one thing,’ he says. ‘I won’t hire anyone unless I can kick the [expletive] out of them.’ I said, ‘You made a mistake hiring me because I can kick the [expletive] out of you.’ He said, ‘Come to work Monday.’ I worked there 50 years and he gave me the company at the end of it. I’m talking $2-3 million hospital jobs in Greenwich and New Milford, tall buildings. I grew up in the Depression. Now I have money, I help anyone I can. It’s funny about human nature. People say, ‘What are you doing helping them out?’ but if I was giving those people $100 they wouldn’t say nothing. Give it to someone else, it’s not any good.
What’s your favorite spot in town?
Dunkin’ Donuts is my favorite spot.
How long has this loose affiliation of regulars been meeting here?
At least five, six years I would say here. I’m not sure. They had the place it was next door, we used to go in there and meet. We congregated there and then moved from there into here. It’s not as roomy.
Tell me more about your siblings.
John Sirico, my brother, he was a basketball player and also was very good.
What do you miss the most about New Canaan that’s not here anymore?
I don’t know that there’s anything I really miss.
When did you retire?
When I was about 69 years old. Let me tell you what happened to me. I retired and my wife says the stock market is terrible, says, ‘Tommy, would you mind getting out of the stock market when you retire? Get out and put your money in the bank.’ So I did and then that’s when it dropped right down, right after she said that.
You must have been a special athlete to get into the New Canaan High School Hall of Fame.
Wait. First, can you put in there that Liz and Lenny Paglialunga are very good friends of mine?
When I played football we just used a leather helmet and you tied it behind your neck and the coach, [Lou] Marinelli, he has it in a glass cage down at the high school. They’re good guys to me. He won 125 consecutive games and I told him, ‘You know what coach, it’s too bad I didn’t play for you. You would’ve won more than that.’ He said, ‘The only bad things is, I wasn’t born then.’ (Laughing.)
Where did you play football?
We used to play at night down at Mead Park. They had another field down on Main Street in New Canaan.
What positions did you play in your favorite sports?
Well I pitched in fast-pitch softball. I played forward in basketball, second base in baseball, and I played quarterback in football.
Thanks Tommy. I think that’s it. Really appreciate it.
Wait. First can you put in there that there are some very special friends of mine? Jack Novakus and my neighbors are Fanone. F-A-N-O-N-E. They’re very good. She’ll come over and make dinner, takes it to my house. And then in the summertime they have a garden of tomatoes and all kinds of vegetables. Her father, he passed away at 104.