John Scarpati stands with statues of Roman soldiers at the Italian-American Heritage Center on Liberty Street. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)
John Scarpati stands with statues of Roman soldiers at the Italian-American Heritage Center on Liberty Street. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)
John Scarpati has spent a lifetime working hard for a living, always providing for his family and never taking shortcuts. He’s had a few issues and altercations along the way, but that never stopped him from punching the timeclock, whether he worked for others or ran his own business.

Ultimately, all of Mercer County has benefited by the longtime Hamilton resident’s work ethic, as Scarpati has been the driving force behind the ultra-popular Mercer County Italian American Festival. Held for three days every September since 2000, the festival has grown into a massive event, going from 13 concession stands and few musicians on a makeshift stage in its first year, to drawing 50,000 people.

The festival, which was created to fill a void after the popular Feast of Lights in Chambersburg shut down, drew a record 75,000 in 2010.

When Kevin Bannon became executive director of the Mercer County Park Commission in 2003, he listened to the things Scarpati had to say and liked many of the ideas.

“Of all the fairs and festivals and diverse programming we do in Mercer County Park, the one that has the most national prestige is the Italian American Festival,” Bannon said. “There is no doubt John has taken something that was locally popular and made it something that people pretty much know nationally. It’s one of the best Italian American festivals in the country.”

It’s not surprising, considering the love Scarpati has for his Italian heritage coupled with his drive and energy to get things done.

“I have a great amount of respect for him,” Bannon said. “He has so much knowledge about the Italian history and the history of the Burg. Some people go there to hear some music, have some food and go home. But if you absorb the festival, there’s so much history and culture that can be learned, and that’s because he devotes his entire year to it, no doubt about it.”

How did this happen? How did a 76-year-old man who never made it past ninth grade build his own business—Scarpati’s Recycling & Auto Salvage in Trenton—and help create an autumn gala that gives so many such joy?

It’s all in the roots, which were planted in Naples, Italy. To understand Scarpati is to understand where he came from.

His dad, Carmen, moved from Naples to Mount Vernon, N.Y. in 1912, and was re-united with his own father. Carmen put down cobble blocks in the streets for two dollars a week and developed a habit of smoking cigarettes and cigars. The foreman was impressed with his work.

“He told him, ‘You know what, I never have to go over your work and tell you to take it out and put it back, I’m going to give you a little extra change for cigarettes,’” Scarpati said proudly, as if his dad were being nominated for president.

Unfortunately, Carmen didn’t tell his dad about the extra cash, which led to an argument between the two.

Carmen bolted to live with some cousins in California.

“They always find out where everybody in the family is,” Scarpati said with a laugh.

The West Coast was just the first stop. Carmen then went to Chicago before moving to Florida to help build hotels as the tourist business was booming. Once the work ran out, he ended up in Bristol, Pa., painting army ships. It was there he met his wife, Anna, who had recently come over from the hills of Italy with her sister.

After having their first two children, the Scarpatis moved to Chambersburg at the suggestion of a friend named Louie Tuccillo, who lived on Roebling Avenue amid several families that all came from the same town in Italy. That was in 1923, and John did not come along until 1939—the last of eight kids.

“I was the only one born in a hospital,” he said. “Everyone else was born in the house.”

The house had chickens in the back, raised by Carmen, who built birdcages out of fish box strips. Anna grew tomatoes, and each September they made wine.

John lived in the Burg for 12 years, which was long enough to retain some great memories. He lived across from the Hewitt School, which was intended to be a Catholic school but turned into an abandoned neighborhood club in 1945 after World War II broke out.

Kids from Emory Avenue, Washington Street and all the other Burg venues would break in and play basketball and whatever else they could do. They would cup their hands under a leaky pipe to get drinks of water until one day John smashed the pipe and broke it off.

“It flooded the floor,” he said. “We swam in it. All that crap floating in there, it looked like a septic tank. But we didn’t care. I was sleeping three in a bed at the time.”

Television had just come into being around 1945 and all the boys would crowd into whoever’s home had the first set. Respect was a must.

“We’d go over to watch TV and sit around and the mothers were all good, but if you did anything wrong you got smacked and got sent home,” said Scarpati, whose mom used to host big Sunday breakfasts. “My brothers were all good, they never swore in the house or sat there with hats on when they ate. My father never swore in the house.”

Outside the house, it was a slightly different story. The young guys would also look up to their older brothers, who Scarpati said “would go outside, hang on the corners, some of them had cars. You’d see them walking around with the ladies as they got older.”

It wasn’t all fun and games, however. Scarpati had what he called “some kid problems, I couldn’t concentrate, I was very nervous, I kept running away from school.” He would go down to the train tracks with his father looking all over for him and most of the time was on his own.

“I always knew how to survive,” he said. “At six and seven I knew where to get food, I knew where to go and what to do. I didn’t mind being by myself.”

Through all these experiences, along with his parents’ background, the 13-year-old Scarpati brought a deep appreciation of Italian heritage to Mercerville when his parents moved on to Edinburgh Road. Once again, Louie Tuccillo helped set things up, and Carmen and his sons built the house.

John attended the original Steinert (which is now Nottingham) in ninth grade but got in some trouble and that was it for school. He started helping his dad and brothers paint, and they all got sick from lead poisoning.

Scarpati began junking cars around that time but also gained work at Tindall’s Farm in Hamilton. It wasn’t easy, however. Much like the scenes made famous in “On The Waterfront” where the foreman comes out and picks the workers for the day, Mr. Tindall would pick his helpers each morning and never picked Scarpati.

In a reflection of Carmen, who would do anything to survive, John did something about it. One day, in the pouring rain, he stood on Tindall’s porch before he left for work.

“He said ‘What are you doing here,’” Scarpati said. “I said ‘I want you to see my face because you never ask me to work. I come here every day and you never give me a chance to work. I’m stronger than these guys, I’m faster and I’m not afraid of anything.’”

John never had difficulty getting work on Tindall’s Farm after that. During the day, he’d flag down milk trucks, purchase a quart of milk and donuts and scarf it all down.

“I was always hungry,” he said. “That farm was like our playground.”

Scarpati’s working career was underway. He would borrow his brother’s paint truck to go junking in the winter and eventually got a job at Trenton Iron & Metal.

“I got in trouble there and left, it was a big story, I can’t really tell you about it,” he said with a laugh.

From there he worked as a carpenter, a gas station attendant and a truck driver.

“I drove this truck all over with a guy named Stinky Pete,” Scarpati said. “I got a lease with Prospect Trucking and I was hauling freight for them into Brooklyn, Baltimore, all along the coast.”

Through that, he met someone in the scrap business and took a job in Jersey City that started at 4:30 a.m. In 1971, John gained an interest in auto parts and attended a seminar on how to sell and scrap them. He made some money, bought a crane and several trucks and was making a decent living.

By 1978, he noticed that Hoffing GMC trucking on the corners of Mulberry Street and Nottingham Way was closing down and desperately wanted to purchase that building. The asking price was too much, but with help from a friend, Paul DeLorenzo, and a loan, he got enough for the $150,000 down payment on the $250,000 building. Scarpati Recycling was born. John had lawyer and loan debts totaling $2,500 a month but paid them off in a year.

“I was like a bulldozer,” he said. “I was junking cars at night with flashlights. My wife (Dorothy) would come with the kids and feed me there. I painted the building inside and outside and put 50,000 parts in inventory on the shelves.”

The company is still going strong. John remains the president, John Jr. handles the scrap and container business and daughter Christine handles all the used auto parts and used cars and Dorothy also does some work. Even some of the grandchildren come in to help.

John and Dorothy have three children and five grandchildren, and the couple is in their 51st year of wedded bliss in the same home. Since moving in, John re-modeled it to make it look like an Italian villa.

“I told my wife ‘I’m gonna build you a villa,’ and she said ‘You’ve been telling me that for 30 years, I’m gonna by my own house,” Scarpati said. “So I went around, took photos of different things I liked and we designed a house.”

Dorothy and the kids were the driving force behind Scarpati’s tenacious work habits. He’s proud of that, and considers it part of what makes Italian-Americans great.

“I’m the kind of guy, if I’m sick, I go,” he said. “I put a blanket around me and go. When my kids were little and I had the shakes, I’d go out and change a tire and drive to New York. Guess what, I got kids to feed. Today, people run uptown and get a free loaf of bread. We didn’t get no free loaf of bread at my house.”

Scarpati signs his correspondence Cav. John Scarpati, Sr. The “Cav” stands for Cavaliere, which represents Knight/Defender of Italian heritage. With that kind of pride in his culture, it should come as no surprise that Scarpati’s friends eventually talked him into starting the Italian Festival.

“I used to have guys over and cook, and we’d sit there and talk and conquer the world,” he said. “From that the guys said, ‘Why don’t you start a feast down here?’ I said, ‘I got too much to do, I got the junk yard, I got buildings I’m re-doing.’ But every week they’d ask.”

Scarpati finally gave the answer they were looking for. He and Dorothy began doing research and visited Italian festivals throughout the country. Trips included Manhattan, Long Island, Brooklyn, Mount Vernon, West Virginia, Philadelphia, Delaware and Hammonton in South Jersey. John finally found what he was looking for in Milwaukee.

“It’s the biggest Italian festival in the United States, it’s huge,” he said. “I was impressed with the whole thing, on a waterfront. When I came back, I said, ‘Listen, I’m gonna make this festival, it’s gonna be different than what we had in Chambersburg. It’s gonna be more cultural.’”

Scarpati got his posse of brothers and friends together, and he laid down the law—nobody was getting paid, it was strictly volunteer. They worked their butts off, and had a modest beginning in 2000. But John said his hopes were realized that very first year.

“That very first day, people in wheelchairs and canes from Chambersburg were coming in and grabbing my hand,” he recalled. “They were saying, ‘Thank you Mr. Scarpati, for what you’ve brought back to us.’ I was choked up, you wouldn’t believe it.”

Things grew from there. Scarpati began showing Bannon pictures that he took of other festivals, and Bannon began making major improvements to Mercer County Park. The festival now has over 30 committees, 125 volunteers and numerous corporate sponsors to offset the cost. The proceeds go to various Italian-American organizations.

“We’ve established our festival grounds a lot through his knowledge of what’s going on around the country at other ethnic festivals,” Bannon said. “He brought some great stuff back and helped us formulate our game plan to make our festival what it is today. He really did help us. I know we implemented a lot of his ideas.”

In keeping with the culture, Scarpati has added actual streets from the Burg within the festival grounds. He is restoring a World War II memorial statue that will be put on the grounds, and he hopes it is placed near the entertainment stage. He is also looking to de-Americanize things a bit and bring more Italian foods, such as fish and mussels, to the event.

For his tireless work, a dedication was held last year to rename a portion of Newkirk Avenue—where the festival headquarters are located—Scarpati’s Way. Gov. Chris Christie has also honored Scarpati with a proclamation.

He is obviously slowing down, as age and health issues have taken their toll. Scarpati has had several heart attacks, has 13 stents and underwent two open-heart surgeries.

The leader of the festival is in the process of raising money for an heir to his throne. He is trying to make what he does now a fulltime, paid position. He feels several of his lieutenants—Mike Rossetti, Frank Cirillo and Joe DiPaolo to name a few—would be strong replacements.

That doesn’t mean he would disappear, however. Scarpati still remains active in the family recycling business and actually has a special gardening rake that’s nearly ready for patent.

As for the festival, there’s no way he turns his back on what can be considered his fourth child.

“I would still come around,” he said. “As long as I can move, I can do something. I just don’t want to give up on it. I’m handy.”