Nourishing his community
Bill Marks is a unique example of someone who was rooted in a community, and who grew and blossomed there – and nourished his community, figuratively and literally.
Bill is still living in the Farrell house in which he was born on July 13, 1920. That’s 88 ½ years in the same house.
His dad, Ralph Marks (name changed from Marta at Ellis Island), came from Italy, married Mary Stone from Hillsville, and settled in Farrell. He worked at Myer Frank store, then at Westinghouse and the Farrell schools, and ended up as head of the Farrell Street Department. He and Mary had nine children. Anne died at age 18 months, and Edward at 17. The rest – Frank, Carl, Arthur, Ralph Jr., Mary Lou, Loretta, and William – grew up together.
According to Bill’s sister, Mary Lou Cimoric, the five boys were frequently in trouble with their father.
“They did a lot of mischief,” she said. “Our father set a curfew for us. He would whistle, and it didn’t matter where you were in the block, you’d better get home.”
There were a lot of boys in the neighborhood. The Millers, who lived across the street and owned the Nehi bottling works, had 13 children.
“We played ball in the street, even before it was paved,” Bill said. “I remember the big long steam shovels when they paved the street in 1933. We had a lot of fun with the bricks. We took some and used them in the back yard to make places to sit and other things. You would have thought they would have gone looking for them, but they never took them back. They were all local people anyhow. The city did the work themselves.”
Bill had some health issues early on.
“When I was nine months old, I had an ulcer in my right eye,” Bill said. “When I was four or five, my mother would take me on a train to a specialist in Pittsburgh. There were no specialists around here. They spent a lot of money on me, but I ended up totally blind in that eye.”
When he was 17, he had a tumor on his face, but it was treated successfully with radiation therapy.
Bill was too small to play on high school sports teams. He weighed less than 100 lbs in his senior year. But he, his brothers, and their friends took advantage of their father’s working at Farrell High School.
“We’d get a bunch of kids together from the neighborhood and take over the gym on Saturdays.”
While in high school, Bill delivered newspapers, worked at a couple of neighborhood grocery stores, and worked at the Nehi Bottling Works. When he graduated, he couldn’t work in the steel mills because of being blind in one eye. That also kept him out of military service.
During World War II, Bill served in whatever way he could. He took a course in Auxiliary Police Procedure from the Public Service Institute of Pennsylvania and became a Civil Defense warden.
Not being able to work in the mills, Bill had to find another line of work.
“I started to bar tend before I was 21 down at the Eagles Grill. Jerry Chicarino’s father owned it, and he broke me in. He and Emil Stone, who was terrific. They used to give me all the private parties upstairs. Sometimes I’d get 50 or 75 bucks in tips.
After eight or so years working at the Eagles, Bill started working evenings at the Hilltop Inn while working at the Eagles during the day. He continued working at the Hilltop for 19½ years. Then, in 1967, he got the chance to become manager of the Italian Home, a.k.a. The First Italian Social Club.
The Italian Home had been around since the very beginning of the last century. It grew out of the Christopher Columbus Society, which was a fraternal organization exclusively for people of Italian descent.
“The Italian home and the Slovak Home got started about 1902,” Bill said. They both put up their buildings in the same year.”
They were just two of the many ethnic clubs that sprung up in Farrell. Some nationalities had more than one.
“The Polish got into an argument among themselves, so one group built a club on Spearman Avenue and another group put one on Wallace Avenue.”
The Italians themselves weren’t completely free from internal rivalry.
“Our club was comical, back when it was first started,” Bill said. “The Italians had what they called seven different dialects. As it went along, they were all trying to take over the club. The Calabreses and Sicilianos, they’d go at it, try to take over. One other group got thrown out. The impression I got was that they belonged to the Communist Party. They went to California.”
While the Home was never a place where people actually lived, it became a home away from home, not just for Italians, but for people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Maybe that’s because Bill, along with several members of his own family, made it feel like home to others. Over the years, Bill’s mother, brother, two sisters, one brother-in-law, three nieces, and two grand-nieces worked there.
The first was his mother, who started in the kitchen when Bill took over. The Home just had a small sandwich kitchen and a bar. Bill and his mother transformed it into place where people could enjoy full-service meals, as well as snacks.
“There was an unbelievable gang down there,” he said. “My mother started in the kitchen from the beginning. My sister Mary Lou and her husband Tom worked down there. After my mother left the club, my niece, Carol Baker, and with her girl friend in the kitchen, and they did a terrific job. Now they’ve got their own catering company called Classic Catering.”
Bill’s brother-in-law, Tom Cimoric, started tending bar there after he finished school.
“I worked there 17½ years,” he said. “Bill helped build up the business in the way of serving dinners, especially fish fries on Friday nights. The place was jammed. The line would be out the door.”
“At one time we had more than 6,000 members,” Bill said.
Bill also started Saturday morning breakfasts, which are still popular today, 12 years after Bill retired.
Bill’s backyard garden provided some of the produce, especially peppers and tomatoes, for the Home. He put up 800 jars of peppers and sauce for use in the kitchen.
Food wasn’t the only thing that Bill improved.
“Bill expanded the bocce complex,” Tom said, “and was responsible for establishing a lot of the bocce leagues and tournaments. The tournaments brought in a lot of people from out of town.”
“One year had 44 teams from Canada, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, all over,” Bill said.
He took the Home’s teams to out-of-town tournaments, even to Las Vegas, where they played celebrities such as tennis star Pancho Gonzales and singer Jerry Vale. Of course the team members never forgot the celebrities; on the other hand, the celebrities also remembered them.
“The second year we went to Vegas,” Bill said, “I remember Jerry Vale saying, ‘Damn, are we going to have to play you guys again?’”
As much time as Bill’s work absorbed, he still found time to contribute his services to the community in other ways. When he was 23, he joined the Farrell Volunteer Fire Department and fire police, and remained active in them for 65 years.
“The city police would even call me sometimes to have me direct traffic around a traffic accident,” Bill said.
He also served four terms on the Farrell City Council. He was a council member when the new Farrell City Building was built. He was also an avid supporter of the Farrell High School sports team. He was a long-time season ticket holder for the basketball games.
“When we were kids, four of us would get the four seats next to the team,” Bill said. “Some of the guys connected with the rackets would come and give us forty or fifty bucks for our seats – all four of them. We’d run home and give the money to my mother. The gym had a balcony on the opposite side from us. My mother and dad would sit up there and watch us to make sure we behaved. My mother loved Farrell basketball.”
Bill is now the oldest member of the Farrell Boosters Club. He is still a major fan, rooting for his grand-nephew, Nick Cimoric, who is a member of the current basketball team.
Bill has overcome a few health issues through the years, in addition to the problems he encountered as a child. Through the years, a little too much of the good food at the Italian Home caused him to grow to 240 lbs. Then in 1994, he had to have a bone replaced in his back. After the operation, he contracted a staph infection and had to stay in the hospital for two months. He came out weighing 170 lbs.
Today he still spends a lot of time at the Italian Home, plays bocce, and – even though he never married – enjoys the support of a loving family – his siblings, their children, and grandchildren.