The Vecellio Family

 

In the late 1800s, the Rubins and Komoras immigrated to America from Germany where they settled in Coal City, Illinois. On January 27, 1889, Martin Komora married Elsie Rubin. They had six children: Frank, William, Clara, Albert, Tom, and Mary Komora. The Komoras arrived in Sopris in the early 1900s where they were the only German family who lived in the little town. 

 

Simultaneously in the late 1800s, Bartolo and Carmella Vecellio immigrated to America from northern Italy where they settled in Vulcan, Michigan. In the states, they started their family where John, Kelly, August, Lena, Mary, Annie, Jim, and Anthony Vecellio were born. When John and Kelly were around fourteen, their parents (along with the younger children) decided to go back to Italy, and rather than go with them the boys traveled to Louisiana to find work, and eventually made their way to Southeast Colorado, to Sopris, where they stayed and worked in the Morley and Sopris coal mines. 

 

It’s believed some of the younger children later returned to America, but nothing is known beyond that. 

 

Following the end of the war, in 1919, Clara Komora married John Vecellio, and from this union, our family’s lineage was born. We’ve heard that John was a bit of a heavy drinker and was often seen staggering home from the local bar on Saturday night, and once home, getting an ass-chewing from Clara which could definitely be heard throughout the neighborhood. John “Jocko” and Clara had two sons: Albert and Kelly. Those who knew the Vecellio boys said that Albert and Kelly took after their maternal uncles Frank and Albert Komora who were both good athletes and little troublemakers. (Albert Komora was actually a decent baseball pitcher and pitched for the Sopris baseball team whose teammates were all miners.) 

 

As young men, both Albert and Kelly were always in the middle of some mischief. Kelly had a tendency to be a bit mean, like when he singled a boy out and grabbed his arm to show other kids how filthy and dirty his skin was (as if everyone in Sopris wasn’t equally poor), or when he told a bunch of younger boys that he had learned a new game where they could win pennies by guessing the right dirt mound they were buried in! Ha! It turns out he tricked them into digging into piles of manure. Another time, Kelly told his friends that they could sail from the Purgatory River in Sopris straight to the ocean! Believing this could be the adventure of a lifetime, they removed some doors from the vacant Colby house to use as rafts: Of course, this did not work well with only one person manning the “raft” because it stayed about two inches under the water, and kept hitting the bottom of the river because it wasn’t deep enough. Then Kelly got the brilliant idea for one of them to sneak a bed sheet from one of their houses. Well, that was the end to this escapade: if anyone’s mother caught them, they’d catch some real serious hell. Interestingly too, Kelly also played the French Horn.

 

During these days, everyone in Sopris had a nickname. Albert Vecellio was ‘Grandma’ and Kelly Vecellio was ‘Coyote.’ Even the community sled that was hand made in the old Italian style was given the nickname ‘Macuba’ by Albert, although no one had any idea where that name came from. Here’s a story courtesy of Louis Fantin’s book Legacy of an Italian Coal Miner: “It was like a chair with runners . . . It was about fifteen inches high. The runners were not movable and extended in front about twelve inches and curved upwards with room to put your feet. The slopes where we played was an access road . . . at the base of a fairly steep hill. We called the hill “LHS” because of the large, white-washed letters representing Lincoln High School. The kids in the neighborhood congregated there [to watch Louis’ father, who made the sled, take it on a trial run]. . . He sat on it with his feet resting on the runner extensions in front. He placed the six-foot pole or stick under his right armpit [and] snugly held [it] against his body. It stuck out behind dragging in the snow and he held the front end with his right hand. By rotating it left and right, surprisingly the sled responded and turned as the stick dragged on the snow. Albert Vecellio was more interested in making fun of it than admitting it worked well!” (66). Albert Vecellio also helped get the local underground club house built in the 1930s.

 

Another great anecdote: “Albert had a telescopic twenty-two rifle and loved to flaunt it. He was always up to no good. He was always bragging about being a wild west character of some sort. He would have been at home if he had been born a hundred years earlier. He fashioned himself as one of the western bad men and actually knew a lot about them . . . he sure loved that telescopic rifle and was always shooting at something from a distance where he wasn’t about to get caught” (74). Another memorable image of Albert being just like an iconic wild west cowboy was how much he loved riding horses---maybe as much as he loved shootin’ a gun. Again, when he felt he wasn’t going to get caught, it wasn’t unheard of that he “borrow” a neighbor’s horse and ride it around bareback for a while! Not sure if he was ever busted while in full gallop. 

 

And then, as Fate would have it: In 1940/41, Albert and a couple of other boys had been sent to pick up some dishes from Holy Trinity School that Lincoln High School was borrowing for a banquet; as he was walking, he tripped and fell, and broke all the dishes. Definitely not his most graceful moment. But it just so happened Rose Rino, oldest daughter and child of Gasper and Grace (Gagliardi) Rino, was on the steps just as this happened. The rest is family history. After that, things happened quickly: Rose ended up pregnant with their oldest child, Carole Ann, who was born January 17, 1942 (which was also Rose’s birthday); they married a few weeks later at Holy Trinity Church in Trinidad. 

Two months after his first child was born and he married Rose Rino, Albert enlisted in March 1942 in the Army during WWII and became a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, 505th Division, Company A (the “All-American”). He went to Fort Benning, Georgia for training and was then shipped to North Africa in May 1943. In July ’43 they were dropped in Sicily where he was wounded in action, but with no rest for the weary, Albert then joined in the push to invade Italy where he saw more bloody action. Months later, his division was flown to England to begin preparations for the Normandy Invasion, on June 6, 1944. He jumped with the 82nd into France hours before D-Day (it was 1:00 or 2:00 am when they jumped and D-Day started around 7:00 am). Initially, the 82nd Airborne was supposed to push their way toward the beaches. However, between the confusion, fear, and the cacophony of war, the few surviving boys from the boats (Higgins Boats) stumbled upon the 505th Division, banded together, and pushed their way inland. Following the slaughter at Normandy, the 82nd Airborne, 505th Division, Company A regrouped in England and in September of ’44 they parachuted into Holland where Albert jumped in Operation Market Garden in October 1944. This turned into a complete massacre! It is an absolute miracle that Albert and the few remaining boys even survived.

 

The few survivors got only a moment of respite when they were sent to Paris, France for some rest-n-relaxation. This did not last: they were immediately redeployed and sent to the Battle of the Bulge on December 16, 1944 through January 25, 1945 (the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the US during WWII), in an effort to destroy major bridges to prevent the Germans from coming through. Here, he contributed to the destruction of two enemy bridges behind enemy lines which earned him a Bronze Star Medal for this bravery. Holding steady and pushing their way into Germany, Albert was wounded a second time at the Battle of the Bulge. Then, to Albert’s horror, they came face-to-face with victims of the Holocaust, and on May 2, 1945, the 82nd Airborne liberated Wobbelin Concentration Camp.

 

Albert was discharged in September/October 1945 having earned an additional Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart with one Oak Leaf Cluster.

 

Once Albert returned from the war, life continued. He went back to work in the Valdez Mine where he worked with explosives to break up the veins of coal to shovel it into the coal cars. One of his more enjoyable past times (as well as other men in the area) was participating as a member of the Red Man 

 

Society just like his dad, John Vecellio. The Red Man Society is the oldest fraternal society in America: Its origins go back to 1765 when it was founded by patriots before the American Revolution. These patriots concealed their identities and worked "underground" to help establish freedom and liberty in the early Colonies. They devoted themselves to inspiring a greater love for America and the Principles of American Liberty. 

 

As the years went by, the Vecellio family grew. Albert “Butch” Vecellio was born on August 28, 1946 and Richard “Ricky” Vecellio came a few years later on July 7, 1957. 

 

Of the three Vecellio kids, Butch Vecellio is the one most associated and deeply connected with Sopris. Butch has made every effort to keep his past alive by telling his oldest daughter, LeeAnn (Vecellio-Jones), about the people who lived and loved there, all his stories and experiences, and the connections that continue to grow and stay entwined today. The family has even begun to call LeeAnn’s oldest grandson, Asher Schmitt-Jones, ‘Butchie,’ after his great-grandpa Albert Vecellio. The following are a few of the crazy memories Butch Vecellio shared about growing up in Sopris:

 

One day, Butch and Jasper Butero took Jasper Sr.’s truck—the used GMC he had just bought---to take the trash in the barrels to the dump. After getting rid of the trash, Jasper got the wild idea to go the long way and have a little fun bumpin’ and cruisin’ down Long’s Canyon (and, it just so happened that this was the day the Indianapolis 500 race was taking place). As they approached the S-curve by Joe Lucia’s mine, they were going so ridiculously fast that Jasper lost control and flew up the side of the hill knocking down trees, all this while he hollered out, “Eeeeeeeee potato!!” and Butch holding on for dear life! They jetted across the dirt road leaving absolutely no marks and hit a big boulder right by the railroad tracks. All the windows except the front windshield shot out and shattered, and the barrels were launched forward—one of them hitting Butch in the back of the head. Seconds later, everything became quiet except for “Hang On Sloopy” by The McCoys playing in the background. And after the sudden stop and dust cleared, Jasper calmly asked, “Hey Butch . . . do ya know where my glasses are?” Butch slowly turned and looked at him, and said as if in awe, “They’re hangin’ off your ear.” Then, after a moment’s hesitation Jasper said, “My dad’s gonna kill us.” They worked their way out of the damaged truck and began to walk back to town. Across the way, there were two kids stopped on their bikes with eyes wide open who witnessed the whole fiasco. While those kids were recovering from their shock, Jasper snatched one of their bikes to race home. Not in any hurry to die, Butch chose to walk the distance and later came upon the stolen bike with its wheel lodged and bent in a cattle guard---Jasper having wrecked that too. While Jasper was cautiously and fearfully telling his dad what happened, Butch snuck to Donald DeAngelis’s house to hide and keep from encountering Jasper Butero, Sr. The truck was so firmly lodged and damaged they had to get the county snowplow and power wagon with winches to pull it out.

 

One of Butch’s memories previously quoted in the 2000 Sopris Remembrance Letter: “It was 1965 and I was working for Joe De’s Texaco station in Trinidad. One night after work Don DeAngelis, Sam Terry, Jasper Butero, Tony Maccagnan and myself had a bit too much to drink. We shaved ourselves bald that night. The clippers were not very good and we had patches of hair sticking out all over our heads. We had to attend church the next morning at St. Thomas’. What a sight we were! We looked like something out of the ‘Three Stooges.’ Our parents were all upset with us.”

 

It was an early spring weekend night, in the early 60s, when Jasper Butero, Sam Terry, and Butch Vecellio decided to create a flying saucer on top of LHS hill. At the time, it seemed everyone was talking about UFOs! So they couldn’t have picked a better time for this stunt. They gathered red and yellow railroad flares, construction tire wire, gas-soaked rags, and high-powered M80s for this prank. The boys “found” the materials in Sam Terry’s dad’s garage. It’s easy to imagine them being sneaky, trying to be quiet and muffling their laughs in order not to be caught. Later, as the sun was going down, they climbed up the west side of LHS by the fence line that ran by Mr. Coszalter’s sheds. Once they made it to the top, they hid behind a tree and began making their UFO. Staying very focused on their task, they tied flares to the ends of fifteen-foot long pieces of tie wire; the gas-soaked rags were tied to rocks; and the M80s were laid out nearby ready for igniting. They lit the flares and began swinging them on the wires in a big circle above their heads. Each of them had one red and one yellow flare apiece. Then one of them started the rags on fire and threw them in the air while setting off the M80s. The combined effect generated lots of loud noise and smoke. As the flares spun and burned past the wire, they shot off in different directions starting small grass fires. In a panic, the boys hysterically tried to put out the small fires by stomping on them. While laughing and stomping, they suddenly noticed that traffic was stopping along Highway 12 and porch lights were popping on all over Sopris. Getting a bigger response than they bargained for and not wanting to be seen or caught, they ran down the long way and came out by the trash dumps at the mouth of Long’s Canyon. Strolling into town with their hearts beating wildly, they tried not to look too guilty as the people who were coming outside were talking about the UFO they’d all seen and heard. Of course, with beer as their liquid courage, the guys who hung out at The Big Six and The Frontier bars got all hyped up about having their guns out and ready to take on an alien encounter---right there in Sopris, Colorado! The very next day, the Trinidad Chronicle News had written an article about the UFOs that were sighted above Sopris!

 

 

When Butch was a freshman at Lincoln High School, all boys had to take a Beginning Shop Class with Murray Francis Scotto. (He was definitely not one of the most favored teachers and was feared by all!) They had to do six weeks of book learning first before they were allowed to work with the machinery. One day Murray was instructing the boys how to draw an ellipse; he made it evidently clear they had to have a very sharp pencil and paper to do the drawing. On the other side of the classroom where Mr. Scotto was standing there was one of those ginormous, teaching, chalkboard compasses. Scotto spotlighted Butch and abruptly asked, “What do you need to draw an ellipse?!” Scotto was expecting a much more eloquent response about major and minor lines, but Butch was caught off guard and hollered out, “A sharp pencil and a piece of paper!” So quickly, no one saw it coming, Murray Francis Scotto grabbed that huge compass and hurled it straight at Butch’s head! It looked like a plane propeller flying through the air. Butch ducked as Scotto screamed at him to get out of class! Butch was so confused he just asked, “Where do I go??” Scotto screamed, “Just get out!” Butch had no idea where he was supposed to go or for how long he was to stay gone, so he simply spent the next month hanging out in the boys’ bathroom during that class period. [Years and years later, when Butch Vecellio and Bernard Martorano were on an ‘ol guys road trip through Wyoming they passed the cemetery Murray Francis Scotto was buried in. Bernard tried to get Butch to pull over and so he could go piss on his grave.]

 

Butch was at Angelo Brunelli’s bar, The Frontier, sitting with Tony “Easdy” Ramirez (one of his dad’s friends) having a beer when Bernard Martorano rode up on his horse Dusty, came in, and joined them. After a few more drinks, one of them got the bright idea to fill one of the car hop trays with beer and let Dusty slurp it up: so good ‘ol Dusty had a couple of beers, too. Then, Bernard and Easdy decided to leave---together---on the horse---the drunk horse---and rode by Albert Concini’s house which was right next to The Frontier. As they were trotting by, the pigs in Concini’s yard spooked, began running amok and oinking which immediately startled Dusty! Unexpectedly, Dusty bucked! Here he was---bucking up and down while Bernard and “Easdy” tried to anchor themselves, but with no luck. That ‘ol spooked, drunk horse flung Bernard and “Easdy” right off his back. This feat resulted in a broken elbow for “Easdy.”

 

One day, Butch and his dad (Albert “Grandma” Vecellio) were drinking at The Frontier where Sandro Sanchez and a friend of his were well on their way to being full-on drunk. This became evident to everyone in the bar when Sandro and his buddy got into a heated argument with Sandro claiming he could hold onto the fan blade of the Ford pickup outside when his friend started it up. Seeing an opportunity to make some easy money, everyone laid bets and went outside to be witness to this. Sandro got a tight grip on the blade and yelled, “Let ‘er rip!!” His buddy started the engine and that blade spun so quickly it sliced off one of Sandro’s fingers! All the onlookers gasped as one and jumped back a step. In all the uproar, people were pushing Sandro into the bar to stop the profuse blood flow from his hand. Butch was trying desperately to see the gory details unfold when Brunelli stopped him and told him to go find Sandro’s finger. He was aghast! He didn’t want to do this. He gave Butch a glass of whiskey to put the finger in when he found it to keep it from rotting. He found the finger all covered in dirt, put it in the whiskey, and brought it back in to the bar. In the meantime, Burnelli called his wife (who was a nurse) to come check out Sandro’s mutilated hand. As soon as she saw it, she told him to go to the hospital to have it sewn back on---that it wasn’t too late. He simply declined and told Angelo to give him another shot of whiskey. It’s a mystery whatever happened to his finger.

 

               

  

Albert 'GRANDMA' Vecellio

NOTE: Angelo Brunelli  stored Sandro's finger in the Frontier Tavern freezer. It remained there for several months!

Bill Brunelli