Mercer and Grove City, PA
Living a great life
Vincient “Jim” Mongiello and his siblings were born and raised in the very heart of Mercer. Their home was the Bingham House, which is now the Mercer County Republican Party Headquarters.
Jim’s father, Bartolomeo “Ben” Mongiello had come to Mercer by an eventful, circuitous route.
“My dad was pretty wild out in the mountains of Italy,” Jim said, “so his father decided to send him to the United States before he got into any more trouble. He put him on a ship to his sister in New Jersey. Dad started shining shoes outside of a factory there, then moved to New Castle because a lot of people from his area of Italy lived there. He was quite a lady’s man and so forth, so they finally sent him to Mercer.”
Ben opened a leather repair shop for shoes and harnesses on South Diamond Street across from the courthouse.
“When the United States got involved in World War I,” Jim said, “Father put a flag in the window and closed the shop. He volunteered for the army, went to the Fourth Division in Europe, and fought in four major battles. And he wasn’t even a citizen.”
When Ben came home, he married Mary D’Angio, a daughter of the only other Italian family living nearby, and moved his family and shop into the Bingham House. The shop became a family affair.
“My two brothers and I would go home from school for lunch,” Jim said. “Dad had all the shoes set up for pulling stitches out around the sides. So we ate a sandwich and pulled stitches for the hour before going back to school. After school, we worked in the shop. On Friday and Saturday we had to put the shoe shine box outside, and on Saturday night we handed out advertising bulletins to everyone who was in town to go to the movies. That was my life.”
Or at least the work part of his life. He enjoyed the fun part across the street.
“The courthouse was my playground. The sidewalks around it were the best around in Mercer for roller skating. We used to go sled riding on the hill on the west side of the courthouse – down that hill and all the way down route 19 to where the new Chevrolet garage is today.”
They also entertained themselves inside the courthouse, from the ground floor to the very top.
“We knew every nook and corner in that courthouse. At three o’clock every Friday, two prisoners and a guard would come over to the courthouse and go clean up in the dome to wind up the clock by hand. They would let us turn the handles and everything.”
Apparently, Jim and his brothers inherited a bit of their father’s mischievous spirit.
“The courthouse had four big brass spittoons with mats all around them. We would go clear up on the fourth floor and drop beebees into those spittoons. If somebody was walking by, the business would come up out of the spittoon and get on their foot. One day we were up in the attic of the courthouse and we found a hole in the ceiling. We looked down and the judge was sitting down there. We’d get a little stone and drop it right down onto his desk. He’d look all around to try to figure out where it came from. We were awful.”
The kids also enjoyed watching the antics of the adults around the courthouse. When a couple got married there, the bride would be pushed around town in a wheelbarrow. That was part of a raucous tradition called a “chivaree,” during which friends harassed the newlyweds on their wedding night.
Jim’s world was active and interesting, but quite . He visited Pittsburgh and Erie when his sister was in hospitals for the treatment of Infantile Paralysis.
“And I went to one burleeque over at the Casino in Sharon. That’s the extent of my travels before I went into the Navy.”
Jim joined the Navy even before he graduated from Mercer High School.
“In the class of 1943, if you had passing grades, you could leave and go into the service and receive your diploma. In January I joined the Navy. My mother received my diploma in May.”
After training, he sailed on LST 177 across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean Sea in a convoy of over 100 ships. Unfortunately, an LST is a flat-bottomed tank landing ship designed for the shallow waters near a beach, rather than for the tumultuous waters of the open sea.
“When you sail into a wave, the front goes up, then down and the screws come right out of the water and run wild. I got seasick on the first day out of New Orleans. An officer caught me lying down. I said I don’t feel good. He shouted at me to get to work. I walked out on deck, and here’s the captain with a bucket to upchuck in – he was seasick, too. The rule was, if you were seasick, you worked anyhow.”
Barely 18, Jim was assigned the job of “oil king.” He was responsible for taking on all fuel, dispensing it, and accounting for it.
“I had 57 tanks to take care of. At eight every night I had to have a report on the captain’s desk.”
LST 177 spent the remainder of the war in the Mediterranean, participating in the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Anzio beachhead, and southern France. As the war was winding down, Jim came back to serve Shore Patrol duties in Philadelphia. He married Pauline Hinds, a high school classmate, in May, 1945, and got out of the Navy in November.
His first postwar job was at Willis Chevrolet, where he worked 48 hours a week for $1.00 per hour. After that, he worked in the machine shop at Reznor Manufacturing. When a natural gas shortage shut down production there, he went to work for entrepreneur Howard Winkle-voss – and that set him on a long-term career path.
“He had a store with auto parts in with TVs, refrigerators, and appliances. One day he asked me if I would like to buy half of his auto parts store. I said I don’t have any money. He said don’t worry, I’ll get you a loan. I set the store up as United Auto Parts, and ran it for three years with him as a partner. Then I bought his share and moved the store onto Venango Street in Mercer. In 1986 I sold it and retired.”
In the meantime, Jim and Pauline raised their three children: Robert (born in 1949), Paula (1957), and Lisa (1960).
Unfortunately, his wife Pauline died in 1986, the year he retired.
“I sat and watched TV for three years, then my bookkeeper introduced me to her sister-in-law Carolina (DeMaria) Baker. Her husband Herb had died two years before. We got married in 1990.”
Carolina was one of ten kids born on a farm on Tieline Road, just east of Grove City.
“I was a country girl,” she said. “Mom didn’t speak English, and Dad only spoke a little bit. None of us kids spoke English until we went to school. I think I was eleven years old before I went to a movie. That was probably also the first movie my mother ever saw.”
Carolina and Herb lived successively in several houses on Tieline Road, where they raised two sons, Rock and Ray Baker. After they were grown up, she worked as supervisor of laundry at Grove Manor Nursing Home for 25 years. She retired a year or so after meeting Jim so they could enjoy retirement together.
All of his life, Jim was very active in the community. During 26 years on the Mercer borough council, he was involved in the construction of the Mercer Borough Building, the Mercer Area Library, the courthouse bandstand, and the borough’s waste water plant. He was also active in many organizations, including the Masons, United Methodist Men, VFW, American Legion, and Ducks Unlimited. As a member of the Mercer High School Alumni Association, he organized many reunions of his graduating class.
He also organized 27 reunions of the LST 177 crew between 1967 and 1998. He collected LST memorabilia, including LST 177’s bell and helm (steering wheel). He still has some of it in his basement, but sent most of it to LST 325, which is still afloat as a museum in Evansville, Indiana.
After the last reunion, the crew contributed money to dedicate a seat to Jim in the Navy Memorial theater.
“Once, we visited the auditorium between shows. A man and a girl were sitting there. I said, ‘Sir, you’re sitting in my seat!’ He said, ‘What?’ I pulled out my ID card, showed it to him, and pointed to the tag on the seat. It says ‘Navy Memorial LST 177 dedicated to Vincient Mongiello.’”
That was just one of many honors and awards Jim has received for his community service. This year he will be enrolled in the Mercer High School Alumni Hall of Fame.
Jim says he has lived a great life. Maybe that’s because he grew up in the very center of his community and remained a central part of it.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010