I don’t know what the record is for longevity at a newspaper, but I have been writing a column for the Review for almost 60 years. If that’s not a record, it’s pretty damn close. (There was a period of a couple months when I quit the Review after an argument with then-owner Leon Levin. But I crawled back.)
Mr. Levin was old-school. He hired me to write an appreciation of then-District Attorney Arlen Specter. But in retrospect, Specter was not at all the kind of politician you would expect the right-wing Mr. Levin to support. No. Mr. Levin was a firebrand. Loved Douglas MacArthur. Wanted us to drop a nuclear bomb on China before they could do it to us. You could expect to fight with Mr. Levin about the content of your columns. He really cared about the content of what went into his newspaper. You could expect him to refuse to print some of your columns. He had all kinds of personal feuds you were supposed to honor. Example: He despised Ed Snider. So no positive columns about Ed Snider.
When Mr. Levin owned the Review, you were not allowed to ask for a raise. A pay raise was something only he could bestow on you … if and when he thought you deserved one. In the end, I outlasted Mr. Levin. The idea of a family-run newspaper died as ownership of the Review passed to a corporation.
The new face of ownership was Mr. Anthony Clifton. Mr. Clifton was an elegant British gentleman — at least he dressed and spoke that way. My memory is that he presided over the next 26 years of the Review’s run. The Clifton era was the heyday of the Review. The newspaper was a stable part of the community. Its office located at the corner of 12th and Porter. All these years later, I’m not sure of the precise sequence of events, but social change hit America hard in those days. And no community, perhaps, was more resistant to change than South Philadelphia. Lucky for us, we had an outstanding editor at the time, Sandy Pilla.
She was a beautiful, searing idealist. Wrote brilliant, passionate editorials. Unafraid. She challenged the community. Defended the defenseless. Told other sides of the story that were sometimes unpopular. Although we never consulted on the subjects we would write about, I never enjoyed writing my column more than when it was a companion piece to a Pilla editorial. The local Catholic churches viewed us as enemies in their midst. Who were we to challenge their churchly views about the rights of gay people or about issues of race? Sandy, wherever you and your lovely family are, I salute you. You fought the good fight. And sometimes, you even won.
About this time, I developed the fictional character of Uncle Nunzio. The column needed a sense of humor. Constant preaching falls on deaf ears. I based the character of Uncle Nunzi mostly on my father-in-law and somewhat on my own personality. Most of the columns involving Uncel Nunzi were based on real-life experiences. The clash between generations. Until they weren’t. When those columns started to veer toward pure fiction for the sake of some chuckles, I stopped writing them. I still write about Uncle Nunzi occasionally. But it’s become obvious that as I’ve grown old, I’ve become Uncle Nunzi.
A few words about writing a column for a newspaper in a community like South Philly. My column is a mixed bag. All the owners of the Review — after Mr. Levin’s ownership – have given me carte blanche to write about any subject. I will always appreciate that freedom and try not to abuse it. As ownership of the newspaper has changed over the years, so has my contact with the folks who own the newspaper. I no longer know them.
I like to think my political views have matured over the years. The Donald Trump era has made it very difficult to write a weekly column without allowing him to dominate the substance. It’s also difficult because our South Philly community is so strongly supportive of Trump and I am not. I will not ever forgive Trump or those politicians who support his trying to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. This fact has placed me at war in some ways with former friends and neighbors in South Philly. To quote one non-fan, “Do you realize how much you’re hated around here?”
No one wants to be hated. But much as I’m pained by losing friends, I’m unwilling to pay the price to become popular with these folks. I’m really sorry about that. I keep hoping the problems and polarization of the Trump era will fade and disappear. And all of the cultural ties we had will once again bond us to each other despite our political differences. In the meantime, I will try to be fair to those who hate my column. I think that in some very important ways — the celebration of Columbus Day comes to mind — South Philadelphians are misunderstood. I’ve tried to combat that misunderstanding through my columns.
I don’t know how much longer my journey at the Review has. Ownership continues to print my columns — though pay raises have become tougher than when Mr. Levin ran things. This newspaper no longer has an office in South Philly — something I view as a grievous turn of events. There is no brave Sandy Pilla leading the fight.
My health has failed me several times in recent months. My doctor says I’m a survivor. So this survivor will push on until someone or something tells me it’s time to stop. Until then — peace.