It’s ‘Joe Savoldi Day’ in Johnsonburg, PA
By Laura DeStephano Ishler
Originally titled “Jumpin’ Joe” © 2007, 2019
It was late March, 1956; nobody remembers the exact date anymore. But it was the right time, and Johnsonburg was the right place. Johnsonburg was my Dad’s hometown, a small town tucked in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. As in many towns of that era, there were two social classes: The big shots and the working stiffs.
The big shots ran the place, swaggering and boasting that they were smarter than the workers. Many of the working men were sons of Italian immigrants. They went off to fight in World War II and returned home to work in the paper mill and support their families. They were passionate about three things: America, their faith and football.
The working men were Catholic, and in those days, if you were Catholic, you were a Notre Dame fan. Most of these men had never gone to college, so the press had dubbed them “the Subway Alumni.”
The Johnsonburg Alumni were in for a treat, because on one amazing day, the famous Notre Dame football star Joe Savoldi came to town.
Joe was born in Italy and came to America when he was twelve. He played on Knute Rockne’s “win one for the Gipper” team and the legendary 1929 and 1930 squads. “Jumpin’ Joe” became famous for running over everything in his path. Rockne called Joe “the best attack fullback I ever saw.” In 1933, Joe became the national heavyweight wrestling champion.
(Photo at right courtesy of James Savoldi.)
When World War II came, he was a hero who used his knowledge of Italian dialects to serve his adopted country as an Allied spy in Italy. Jumpin’ Joe was the Italian Catholic Boy Who Made It Big – and now for some reason, he had landed in Johnsonburg.
By this time, Joe was in his 40’s, a big stocky guy with an engaging smile. He walked up to the first man he met and asked where he could find a room, and was directed to the local hotel. Joe carefully set his luggage down and started to sign the register.
When the clerk saw the suitcase that was prominently lettered with the name “Joe Savoldi”, his heart stopped for a moment.
“Are you the Joe Savoldi, the football star?”
Joe was flustered.
(Photo at right of the Johnsonburg Hotel courtesy of Megan Schreiber Carter.)
“Please don’t tell anyone. I am so tired. I just needed to get away for a little peace and quiet. I don’t want anyone to know I’m here.”
The clerk promised him privacy, but the secret was just too big to keep. By the end of the day, everyone knew that Joe Savoldi was in town. And the town went crazy.
Tony came flying in to his job at the paper mill and waved his right hand in the air. “I am never gonna wash this hand again! This is the hand that shook the hand of the great Joe Savoldi!”
The town rolled out the red carpet. Joe didn’t spend much time at the hotel. Wealthy residents welcomed him into their homes for fancy dinners. One even bragged that Joe was dating his daughter.
The big shots gave Joe large sums of money to invest for them. The working stiffs took him to the Sons of Italy Club and bought him drinks all night as they listened to the stories of his glory days. Everywhere Joe went, he had an audience.
Johnsonburg was starstruck.
(Photo at right courtesy of James Savoldi.)
Well, maybe not everyone. Carl shook his head in disgust at grown men fawning over some guy just because he was a football hero.
Bert didn’t trust him at all. How did anyone know he really was Joe Savoldi?
He sat at the club with Joe and tried to trip him up. But Joe had a great memory.
He dazzled Bert with all the details of his famous plays at Notre Dame.
Fans clamored to get a memento of Joe’s visit. Some found an odd way to get one. Joe was a little short on cash. He was waiting for his big check to be forwarded to the local bank. No problem. Several of his new friends stepped up to help. Joe wrote Mike a check and asked him to hold it for a few days. Later, Mike’s wife asked him why he hadn’t cashed the check yet. “Are you crazy?” Mike retorted. “I can’t cash this check. This is an actual autograph of Joe Savoldi!”
One merchant accepted a check from Joe, but she didn’t keep hers as a souvenir. She went to the bank and cashed it. A few days later, it bounced. She told her son, who called the police. By the time the police arrived, Joe’s room was empty.
He was long gone. Jumpin’ Joe had skipped town.
When the truth came out, it was hard to take: The stranger was not the great Joe Savoldi. He was a con man who had set out to fleece a town that had football fever. A few weeks later, he was arrested in another small town for pulling the same stunt.
But for Johnsonburg, it was too late. The town had been taken. Working men had lost the five or ten dollars they had lent “Joe”, which was a lot of money in those days. They cheered up considerably when they found out that the town’s elite had been burnt worse. A lot worse. The big shots who were so smart had given gobs of money to “Joe” to invest, and it was all gone. Pride prevented them from admitting how badly they had been taken.
But the working men knew, and they roared with laughter; in fact they still laugh about it to this day. At the paper mill, for years afterward, April 1st was no longer called April Fools Day. Instead, it was called “Joe Savoldi Day.”
Such a scam could never happen today, but it did happen in a more innocent time.
My Dad’s friends, who had been there, told me the story, shaking their heads and laughing all the while.
Today, more than fifty years later, Johnsonburg men are still notorious for their love of football. Although many of the Subway Alumni are gone, don’t ever tell a Johnsonburg man that you are not a football fan. On fall Friday nights, the men are at the high school football games, and on Saturday, they are still arguing about what happened.
In Johnsonburg, a high school football star is still a hero who enjoys the adoration of the local girls. But he doesn’t dare act too conceited around his Grandpa. If he gets too pretentious, Grandpa will laugh and put him in his place:
“Hey just who do you think you are? You think maybe you’re the great Joe Savoldi?”
About the Author: Laura DeStephano Ishler is a Christian, a Penn State graduate who has worked 21 years coordinating social services in rural Pennsylvania. Her articles have appeared in publications including “Woman’s World”, “Chicken Soup for the Soul” and “Wanderings”. The first rights to this story were sold to “Good Old Days Magazine” in 2007. She recently completed a 15 page sequel entitled: “When Joe Savoldi Came to Johnsonburg”. Laura may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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