Catching up with civic stalwart Frank Alfano
Former Dane County facilities manager is organizing fellow retirees for local United Way projects.
This story features a spaghetti-eating contest, a 103rd birthday celebration, trips to Italy, a post-midnight poker game for charity, and the triumphant return of the Mayor of Park Street.
It could only star Frank Alfano.
Alfano may be best known for his years as facilities manager for Dane County — he retired in 2002. But since coming to Madison from the Boston area some 60 years ago, Alfano has played a significant civic role with community-minded side pursuits. Now 78, he’s still at it.
This year, Alfano is chairman of United Way of Dane County’s Retired Employees Are Dedicated Individuals, or READI, program, which began in 1993 with Oscar Mayer retirees and is now open to all. READI volunteer efforts recently included making and packing 10,000 masks for free distribution and stuffing backpacks with school supplies.
I don’t recall where I first met Alfano, but it must have been one of two places: At Festa Italia, an annual three-day fete at McKee Farms Park in Fitchburg, or at George Fabian’s Park Street Shoe Repair, which the late Joe “Buffo” Cerniglia called an “Institute for Advanced Italian Studies.” People dropped in to be amiably insulted by George. Occasionally a shoe got fixed.
Alfano was a fixture at both Festa and the shoe shop. A son of blue-collar parents, the Air Force brought him to Madison’s Truax Air Force Base in 1961, where he spent four years. (In 1968, the Truax Air Force Base was deactivated and the facilities became the Truax Field Air National Guard Base, which it remains to this day.) Alfano then moved to Oscar Mayer, working in plant design, followed by a few years on the University of Wiscinsin-Madison campus, and finally, in 1987, the county facilities job.
There were abundant good memories, marred by one tragedy. In 1988, two county employees — Clyde “Bud” Chamberlain and Eleanor Townsend — were murdered by a man who brought a rifle into the City-County Building. Alfano led the effort for better security in the aftermath.
“It was the worst day ever,” he recalled, when I caught up with him by phone late last month. “Bud was down in my office that morning complaining about some of the people we had in the building. Two or three hours later he was dead.”
The same year Alfano went to work for the county, he joined the Italian Workmen’s Club. He’d already embraced the Jaycees, serving as chapter president and statewide vice-chair.
One Jaycees project was helping with the annual Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy telethon, televised live for 24 hours from a Madison shopping mall. Alert viewers at 2 or 3 a.m. would hear the host say, “And $25 contributed from the back room.”
“We played poker to stay awake,” Alfano said. “A percentage of the pot went to Muscular Dystrophy.”
Alfano has been a tireless promoter of Festa Italia. “In good weather we’d sell 2,000 spaghetti and meatball dinners,” he said.
A highlight of my journalism career was interviewing Jake Kneebone, winner of one year’s spaghetti-eating contest. He’d eaten a prodigious amount in 90 seconds, though he’d faltered slightly at the end.
“I had a piece of linguine stuck in my throat,” Kneebone said.
I pointed out it was spaghetti, not linguine.
“Well,” he said, “it was one long noodle, I’ll tell you that.”
This year, Festa was canceled because of the coronavirus. But the Italian Workmen’s Club and Italian American Women’s Club organized a drive-by 103rd birthday party for Katie LeTourneau, who lives independently across from McKee Farms Park and loves Festa.
“It was a blast,” Alfano said. “We had 50 or 60 people. It was a surprise for Katie.”
LeTourneau’s family came to the Madison area from Sicily in 1912 and she’s traveled to Palermo twice.
Alfano had always hoped to get to Italy, and that dream was realized when he became point person for Madison’s sister city relationship with Mantova. “Now we have friends over there,” Alfano said. He and his wife, Janette, have been married 53 years.
When I asked Frank about our mutual friend George Fabian, he reported that he still sees George twice a week, Monday and Friday mornings, at the shoe shop on Park Street.
“But George closed the shop in 2018!” I said.
It was a historic moment – George was famous as the Mayor of Park Street. The gatherings at the shop were legendary.
Alfano said the shoe shop building is owned by First Choice Dental next door, and they’re allowing George and his pals to still gather at the shop, seated outside in good weather, indoors otherwise.
“People stop and take our picture,” Alfano said. “They drop off donuts. They honk and wave.”
Alfano laughed. “We may not know them, but they seem to know us.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.