Ed Ceremuga says he was born, bred, and buttered in Greenville, PA. That line doesn’t work as well on paper (bred/bread) as it does when Ed says it aloud. Some people say that the pun is the lowest form of humor, but Ed doesn’t worry about things like that. He just keeps the jokes coming, whether they’re punny or not.
“Greenville was a nice community to grow up in,” Ed says seriously, “a small community, everybody knew everybody, nice people.”
It’s the kind of place to which you would feel indebted for all that you gained from it while you were growing up. When you get older, you might like to give something back.
Well, how about a bit of accordion music, a few songs, smiles, and maybe a joke or two in nursing homes and other venues where people cannot easily step out to enjoy entertainment? That’s what Ed and his wife, Sandy, decided to do a dozen or so years ago, and they’ve been doing it ever since.
“We are able to bring entertainment to them,” Ed said.
It’s an appropriate giveback, because it makes use of talents both of them developed as kids. Sandy started singing in church choir while she was still single, and Ed became infatuated with the accordion while in St. Michael’s High School.
Although Ed’s innate talent enabled him to learn to play the instrument quite quickly, his commitment to it required both sacrifice and discipline. His father, John, was a tough old-world father who had emigrated all alone from Slovakia in 1923, at the age of 16. He had his own ideas of what his kids could and could not do.
“I played basketball and football in high school,” Ed said. “I never thought that playing the accordion would interfere with my sports. But Dad said, ‘You chose to play the accordion, so you’re not going to play football anymore.’ You have to understand old-time parents. It was their way or no way.”
But even the clear understanding that his dad used his belt for more than holding up his pants didn’t stop Ed from trying another way.
“I would go to football practice and make up an excuse for coming home late,” he said. “I told my mother I had to stay in, or help clean up the classroom, or something. Then one time we were coming down from practice, and my dad caught me. That was the end of my football career because I had disobeyed my parents.”
Ed gives his mother credit for keeping him on track.
“Had it not been for her, I probably wouldn’t be playing the accordion today, because when the kids would come around in the summer with their ball bats and gloves, and go down to the field and choose up sides, I couldn’t leave the house until my hour lesson was done. And that was good, because within a year my brother and I had our own polka band. I picked it up fast.”
His father’s limiting his activities was probably a good idea, because like other kids at that time, Ed had to work outside of school.
“I started in grade school as a dishwasher in a local restaurant,” he said. “Then my dad, my brother George, and I became the night cleanup people at Shuster’s Restaurant, which is now the Keystone School, about four miles south of Greenville on Route 18. We’d go in about midnight to scrub, polish, and wax the floors.”
During one summer, Ed and his brother worked at Greenville Steel Car Company. “That was the best education we ever had,” Ed said. “I couldn’t see myself stuck working in a shop the rest of my life.”
After high school, Ed got a job as a Pepsi Cola route salesman. Then he met Mary Lou DeCapua, who became his first wife in 1956.
“After I got married, I decided I needed to get serious with a career,” Ed said. I chose life insurance with New York Life. It was a good company, but I wasn’t satisfied with my progress. I met a general agent from Pittsburgh through some mutual friends, and went to work with him. He trained me and helped me get my career going.”
Ed and Mary Lou had five children: Gary (born in 1957), Greg (1958), Denise (1960), Mark (1962), and Doug (1967).
“While raising a family, I got away from playing the accordion,” Ed said. “I was too busy working day and night building my insurance business.”
The family suffered two tragedies. In 1974, their 12-year-old son Mark was killed in an automobile accident while riding with another family. In the late 1980s, Mary Lou developed breast cancer and suffered through a radical mastectomy and chemotherapy. She passed away four and a half years after diagnosis, on August 26, 1992.
A couple of years later, Ed met Sandy Seeley Hittle.
Sandy had grown up on a farm about seven miles out of Greenville.
“Dad bought a house that had been owned by a Civil War officer, Colonel Henderson,” Sandy said. “Over the years it deteriorated, so when Mr. Stanfa bought it, he made it into a duplex. They simply gutted the house. There was a spiral stairway in there that was put together with pegs rather than nails. They tore it out and burned it.”
The Seeleys lived downstairs and rented out the upstairs. Her dad, Jim Seeley, worked at the post office in Greenville. A member of the Navy reserves, he went on active duty every summer.
“One of the ships was the USS Wisconsin,” Sandy said. “Every summer it was a different ship.”
Sandy enjoyed growing up on the farm with one brother and one sister.
“We had a couple of horses,” she said. “I belonged to 4-H and took the horses to their shows.
Recreation and entertainment outside the farm was limited.
“We used to walk up to the Hadley Roller Skating rink,” she said. “We didn’t get to come into Greenville that often. We were just farm girls, and whatever Daddy said, that was the rule. He didn’t let us drive the car very often, because, he said, if we wrecked it, he wouldn’t have any way to get to work.”
Her first job after high school was at the Greenville Steel Car Company.
“I met Chuck Hittle, and we got married in 1964. We were married about five years before we started a family. We lived in an apartment in Masury and I worked at Sharpsville Fabricators. Then we bought a house in Greenville and had two children, Doug in 1970 and Toni Lee in 1973.”
Sandy’s marriage, like Ed’s, was cut short by cancer. Her husband died of prostate cancer at the age of 50.
“He died in 1991, the day after my daughter graduated from high school,” she said. “My son was a sophomore at Temple University in Philadelphia. So there I was, working at Greenville Orthopedics, with two kids in college.”
“Everybody was knocking her door down to take her out,” Ed said.
Apparently Ed knocked the loudest or the most often, because a couple of years later she married him.
“She fell in love with my body,” Ed tells everyone. And Sandy laughs dutifully as the loving wife who has heard the same joke way too often.
It wasn’t long before they began performing music together.
“We would go to church together and I’d hear her singing,” Ed said. “I said this girl is gifted with a beautiful voice.”
Sandy encouraged Ed to get back to playing the accordion, and he encouraged her to step out of the choir and into the spotlight.
“I never liked to be out in front,” she said. “I always said don’t ask me to do a solo. I just would not do that. But Ed eased me into it, and I started singing with him in nursing homes.”
She even went one step further by taking voice lessons at Thiel College, and another step by starting violin lessons.
“I started out wanting to play fiddle with Ed,” Sandy said. “Now I’m taking more traditional violin lessons from Jeffrey Johns at Marks Music, which is how I should have started out. But I told him I really want to play fiddle, so he is moving me in that direction.”
Sometimes JoAn Wentling joins them to add harmony. All three derive a lot of satisfaction from their special audiences.
“Someone might have had a stroke and can’t move one side, but you’ll see the other foot tapping when Ed plays those polkas.” Sandy said. “They love it.”
Seeing the audience dancing in their seats, and hearing them laugh at Ed’s jokes – that’s what keeps them going.
“It doesn’t matter if there’s a snowstorm or rain,” Sandy said, “here’s those two nuts going out, loading and unloading our equipment. Sometimes I get thinking we’re crazy, but as long as our health holds out, we’ll keep doing it.”
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010.