Mike Martin skipped his afternoon classes at Bloomsburg University, drove to Pittston, dragged me to a bar for a few beers, and when he had enough in him told me my girlfriend, also a Bloom student, was cheating on me.
That’s the kind of friend Mike Martin was.
This happened more than 40 years ago.
Mike believed not only in the courage-building aspect of beer but also in its healing power and so nursed me through my broken heart over many a glass of Miller Highlife.
A few years later, I was best man at his wedding. And in the four decades since, we have barely seen each other. Life is like that sometimes.
But these kinds of friendships last forever and four years ago, out of the blue, Mike sent me an email. He said he was going to be in this area and hoped we could get together for dinner. He asked me to round up some of the guys, particularly his former high school football coach Bob Barbieri.
It was short notice, but I managed to get Coach Barbieri and also Charlie Turco, who quarterbacked the championship team Mike played on. We met at Arcaro’s & Genell’s in Old Forge and Mike brought along his son, Mickey, who had just completed playing centerfield on the Princeton baseball team for four years on a full scholarship.
It was a glorious reunion, except for one thing. That was the night Coach Barbieri told us his wife, Henrietta, had been diagnosed with cancer. Coach was filled with optimism and said Henri, as he always lovingly called her, was too. But that night we went home with heavy hearts .
Henri’s battle wound up lasting four years. It came to an end last Sunday.
If Pittston High School (and the first few years of Pittston Area) had a First Lady in the mid to late 1960s it was Henrietta Barbieri.
When Bob Barbieri arrived at Pittston High in the mid-60s as the new head football coach and phys-ed/health teacher, every student took notice. We were the John Wayne generation, if you will … kids who grew up with The Lone Ranger and Roy Rodgers and Burt Lancaster and Audie Murphy. We knew what heroes looked like and Coach Barbieri more than fit the part. Fresh from an All Star football career at George Washington University and a couple of years of coaching at his alma mater Old Forge High, Coach Barbieri was a man’s man, ruggedly handsome, unflinchingly courageous and brutally honest. He instantly became our idol.
Then there was his wife, Henrietta … Henri to him, Mrs. Barbieri to us. She had the looks of a movie star and the stature of royalty. We were all smitten by her. But only in the purest since. Like the line in the song To Dream the Impossible Dream, “we loved pure and chaste from afar.”
We had too much respect for Coach Barbieri to look upon his beautiful wife in any other fashion. Too much fear as well.
In addition to our heroes on television and the silver screen, we of that era also had John F. Kennedy. In many ways, his assassination defined our generation. But so did his brief reign in The White House. And with those images fresh in our minds, Bob and Henrietta became our own Jack and Jackie, everything a married couple should be. We didn’t just admire them, we wanted someday to be them.
There were others, too, I must add. It seemd every handsome young male teacher had a beautiful wife, every attractive young female a dashing husband. And they all held themselves to high standards and led their lives, in and out of the classroom, with dignity. We certainly weren’t lacking for role models.
Shrimp that I was in high school, I did not play football under Coach Barbieri. How I envy the guys who did. But because I wrote local sports for the first 15 years of my journalism career, I got to know him in a different light. You might even say the Bob Barbieri I know — the gentle, soft-spoken, spritual philosopher — is the one Henrietta Barbieri knew.
She loved a story that her daughter-in-law Nina, Nick Barbieri’s wife, came home with from her job as a nurse. A patient noticed the Barbieri on Nina’s name tag and said he once had a football coach with that name. Nina said that man was her father-in-law. She went on to talk about how every evening he liked to take her daughter Mia out to the back yard to watch the sunset and talk with her about the beauty of nature and all sorts of other things like that. “Oh,” the man in the bed said. “I must be thinking of a different Bob Barbieri.”
The former player knew only the intense coach, “the sideline Bob Barbieri,” as I like to refer to him.
Henrietta once told me that her romance with Bob was one of “love at first sight.” Her sister had talked her into attending an Old Forge High School basketball game and when Bob Barbieri, just back from college, entered the gym, well, that was that. “All I talked about the whole night,” she said, “were his broad shoulders.”
Fittingly, it was those broad shoulders that carried Henrietta for the past four years. The more she failed, the more strength Bob summoned. He never left her side.
Of course, Bob says Henri was the real hero through all of this. And that comes as no surprise. In death, she remained every bit the beautiful, dignified woman we all loved and admired in life. How fortunate we were to have known her.