Derek Gentile: A friend, a name, and a late reunion
On May, 29, 2006, The Eagle ran this Memorial Day piece by reporter and columnist Derek Gentile, who died on Nov. 12, 2017, about John J. Pignatelli, who died on March 6 of this year. The Eagle thanks John J. Pignatelli's son, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, who shares this story of his dad, his dad's best friend, and their service and sacrifice during WW II every year, for sending it to The Eagle as well.
LENOX — According to John J. Pignatelli Jr., it was hard not to like his old pal William Henry "Smitty" Smith.
"Oh, yeah," said Pignatelli. "He was a big guy, maybe 6 (feet) 2 (inches), rosy cheeks, handsome, a great smile. You couldn't dislike him."
Pignatelli and Smith were the best of boyhood friends. They were nearly inseparable as young men, attending school together, playing sports together, just hanging out.
"He used to sleep over at my house," Pignatelli recalled. "Sometimes, a couple days in a row. Eventually, his mother would call my mother and ask when Smitty was coming home."
They played on the now legendary 1940 Lenox High School championship baseball team. Pignatelli was in the outfield, Smith at first base.
This was a good friendship, based not on competition or envy, but on a genuine desire on the part of both to see each other do well.
"I kind of wanted to play first base because my father used to play first base back in the day," Pignatelli said. "But before tryouts, Smitty told me he wanted to play first base. So I said, 'OK, you go out for first base, and I'll go out for the outfield.' That way, we played together."
A FAMILIAR STORY
But until this past December, John Pignatelli had not visited William Smith in 61 years. It was not a feud or a personal dispute that kept them apart. It was a war. World War II.
On March 4, 1945, William Henry Smith was killed in a plane crash in that war. He left his parents, Henry and Esther, as well as his best friend, Johnny.
It is a familiar story. The lives of hundreds of thousands of people were disrupted by World War II. But until it happens to someone you know, it doesn't seem real. When his best friend died, war and loss became very real for John Pignatelli.
For a while, Pignatelli tried to find his friend's grave. But although there was only one Bill Smith to him, there were a lot of Bill Smiths in the world.
"I just didn't know where the hell to look," Pignatelli said sadly.
Smith was an only child. His military records had been lost in a fire. Except for a photograph, John Pignatelli didn't have much to go on.
The photograph, of William Smith in a tuxedo, has a brief inscription: "To my best Pal, (from) Bill." If anything, Smith is about 18. He looks years younger.
Last year, John Pignatelli's son, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, did some research and, after several months, found the gravesite of William Henry Smith. It was in Milton, a town to which the Smiths had relocated in 1942.
And so the circle was completed. For, as it must be clearly obvious by now, William "Smitty" Pignatelli was named after William Henry Smith.
And the decision to do that was made almost 20 years before William Pignatelli was born.
"I didn't know if I was ever going to get married, I didn't know if I was ever going to have a son," John Pignatelli said. "But when Smitty died, I promised him that I would name my son after him."
"I've always felt honored," said Smitty Pignatelli. "I'm in awe of their friendship. You have friends, I have friends, but what they had was something else.
"You know," he continued, "in the State House, it's pretty much all about protocol. It's representative this and senator that. But to a lot of people, I'm Smitty. And I'm proud of that."
Of course, John Pignatelli's visit to the Milton Cemetery in December wasn't really a reunion. One man was alive. One was not. But this was closer than the two had been in decades.
"It's been 61 years, and my father never talks about it," said his son. "When I finally found (Bill Smith's) grave, my sister Lisa and I told my father we were going on a little drive. We got him in the car, and when he found out what we were doing, he was a little reluctant. He wasn't sure he wanted to do it."
The wound was not fresh, admitted John Pignatelli. But it was, after 61 years, still there.
"When Smitty died, I was crushed," he said. "I didn't know what to do. I could never get close to anyone after that. I could never have a friend like that again."
WORTH THE EFFORT
They got to the cemetery in Milton, and the gate was locked. At that point, Smitty Pignatelli admitted, he was a little thrown. But this had been 61 years in the making. A locked gate was not going to stop the Pignatellis now. Eventually, a caretaker came to the entrance, and the younger Pignatelli charmed him into opening the gate.
The snow was pretty deep from a recent storm. But the grave was there. And John Pignatelli walked to it, slowly, and touched it, very lightly.
"You know, seeing my father touch Smitty's grave, for the first time in years and years, that was worth all the effort to find it," said Smitty Pignatelli.
And afterward, John Pignatelli told his son that he would like to come back sometime. Maybe when the weather was a little nicer.
So it was that, last weekend, at a private ceremony officiated by the Rev. Daniel Brunton, a longtime friend of the Pignatelli family, William Smith was honored again for his service to his country.
The weather, by the way, was not much better. It rained buckets.
Although the ceremony was a recognition of Smith's service, it was not "the last goodbye." Not by any means, according to his best friend.
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of him," said John Pignatelli. "I remember awhile ago, that I told Smitty — my Smitty — that if he grows up to be half the man Bill was, that would be something."
"And," said John Pignatelli, with some emotion in his voice, "I'm proud to say that he has."
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