New York Beginnings
Emil Robert Gatti was the second child born to Italian immigrants Erma & Steve Gatti. His parents had emigrated from San Cipriano & Casorzo, Italy, respectively and made their home in New York City. Thirteen years younger than his older brother, William (Bill), Emil was born in Brooklyn on April 7th, 1936. He was named for his maternal grandfather, Emilio Toretta. Unfortunately, his father was an alcoholic who left the family when Emil was very young. He had no real memories of his father other than one occasion when Steve came to visit and gave Emil a half-dollar coin. When he left, he took the coin back from Emil. Steve's alcoholism caused Emil's Aunt Celia (Steve's sister) to push the family to disown Steve. Despite some efforts of the other Gatti siblings to sneak food and money to Steve, who was living on the streets in the Bowery, he died in 1946 when Emil was only ten years old.
With Steve having left the family, Erma worked hard to provide for her children. She worked as a hatcheck girl at the Lido restaurant on Staten Island which was owned and operated by Steve's brother, Frank and his wife, Josie. While working there she met a waiter named Albert Fabbri. Albert was also an Italian immigrant who lived in Brazil prior to emigrating to the United States. Erma began dating Albert and they were together for almost 20 years before marrying in 1963. Most of Emil's formative years were spent with Albert & Erma. Because of this, Emil always considered his step-father to be his father. As a matter of fact, later in life, when Emil was asked his father's name for legal documents, he would frequently say "Albert" and have to be reminded that his biological father was Steve. His children would also know Albert as their grandfather or more specifically, "Pop."
The family continued to live in New York City, but the ever-increasing organized crime in the city troubled Albert, who was probably the most peaceful man you'd ever want to meet. One day, Emil was caught "pitching pennies." The thought of his son getting involved with any illicit gambling activities made Albert decide it was time to move the family out of the city. Emil had also been kicked out of the Catholic elementary school he had been attending, so a change might have been due!
Growing up in Warren County
When Albert took his family out of New York City, they settled in Warren County, New Jersey. This rural and mountainous area along New Jersey's northwestern border was Emil's home throughout his pre-teen and teenage years. They purchased a farm in Washington, New Jersey and Emil attended White Township Elementary School beginning in third grade. Later they would move to a house in the Manunka Chunk area of the town of Columbia at the base of the Jenny Jump Mountains. Emil went to high school at Belvidere High School. This would turn out to be where he would build the most long-lasting ties. Belvidere was, and still is, a small town where everyone knows everyone else. While there Emil filled much of his time playing linebacker on the school's football team. Later in life, Emil would reconnect with many of his high school friends through reunions and biannual lunch outings. While life in Warren County treated Emil well, it was also the site of the worst tragedy of his life.
Loss of a Hero
As a child Emil always looked up to his older brother, Bill. Bill was thirteen years his senior and Emil held a great admiration for him. Bill was a US Marine and was present at the now famous flag raising on Iwo Jima. When Emil was only 12 years old Bill was driving home from picking out an engagement ring with his girlfriend, Angie. A truck ran a stop sign and crossed in front of his car. With no regard for his own safety Bill pushed Angie down, thus saving her life as the car passed underneath the truck. Bill was killed instantly.
This tragic event had a profound and lifelong effect on Emil. Even a half century later, the mention of Bill's name would bring a mix of admiration and sadness to Emil's face. After Bill was buried, Emil could never bring himself to visit his grave. It was too painful for him. In 2002, the extended family (including Emil) chipped in to add Bill's and several other missing names to the family plot in Queens, New York where he was buried. He first visited the grave in 2003 when attending the funeral of his cousin, Nelson, at the same cemetery.
Emil's father, Albert, spent much of his life in and around restaurants. He was a waiter, bartender, cook, etc. He once even served the King and Queen of England at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. While the family was living in Manunka Chunk he opened Albert's Inn. Growing up in a restaurant family had its perks. He always had a healthy appetite and access to restaurant quality food on a daily basis kept him happy. It wasn't uncommon for find Albert wanting to know who had taken one of the fresh baked pies which had been delivered to the restaurant. While in high school other students and teachers would frequently want to trade lunches with Emil. His veal parmigiana sandwiches looked much better than the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they had in their lunch bags!
They also bought a motel that was behind their home and Erma ran it for a while as Erma's Cottages. While his parents were busy running the restaurant, Emil was given the job of manning the front desk at the motel. If there was only one room left to rent and Emil wanted to leave for the night, he would make up a fake name and put his own money in the till to make it appear to his parents that there were no vacancies.
After his parents moved to Florida, Emil turned the motel into apartments. A few years later, a landslide from the mountain above did serious damage to them. Emil frequently referred to this as "when the mountain came down."
After high school, Emil joined the US Marine Corps. While he wanted to serve overseas, he spent the majority of his time in the Marines at Camp Lejune in North Carolina. He was attached to the motor pool.
It's probably best that he was not deployed overseas as the Korean War was being fought during his time in the service. He was eventually directed to deploy to the war zone, but the war ended before he arrived in country. If it wasn't for a case of impeccable timing, he could easily have been among the more than two million people killed during the Korean War. During his time in the Marines, Emil achieved the rank of Sergeant. When his enlistment was up, Emil left the Marines and happily went back to life as a civilian.
The nickname "Sarge" however, would follow him into his college career at Rider University in Trenton, New Jersey where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Business. While at Rider, he was a member of the Phi Sigma Epsilon fraternity.
After graduating college Emil again went into the employ of the United States Government. He began what would become a lifelong career with the Social Security Administration. He was hired as a Claims Representative at the Trenton, New Jersey office. He later held the same position at the Easton, Pennsylvania office before assuming the position of Field Representative in Bridgeton, New Jersey. Emil continued to rise through the ranks and was promoted to Supervisor and then Administrative Assistant at the Camden office. Emil's hard work and dedication continued to serve him well when he was selected as the Branch Manager (later District Manager) of the new Mount Holly Social Security Office in Lumberton. He would continue to thrive in this job until retirement.
Marriage and Divorce
Emil's college fraternity often hosted mixers. When planning these mixers, the fraternity brothers would call the telephone operator and tell her that they needed a certain number of girls for their mixer. One girl that came to a mixer from nearby Trenton State College was Barbara McCorriston. Emil met her and they later began dating. Barbara and Emil would eventually marry in December 1961.
After living in an apartment in Trenton, Emil and Barbara returned to Manunka Chunk and moved into his parents' house after they moved to Florida. They eventually moved to Millville, New Jersey. They had three children together. Born in 1963, 1965 and 1970, all three were girls named Elizabeth, Christine and Melissa, respectively. In 1971 Emil found out that Barbara was pregnant with a fourth child. He also found out that the unborn baby was not his child but belonged to his best friend, Lew. He immediately left and soon thereafter filed for divorce.
After the divorce, Emil had partial custody of his three girls. Emil was now living in an apartment in Runnemede, New Jersey and took the girls on weekends. Later when he remarried, he and his new wife would continue to pick up his daughters on weekends. The kids never lived with him long term until years later when the youngest came to live with them for a while.
Despite Emil's best efforts, years later all three girls eventually chose to gradually estrange themselves from him for reasons that were never known to him.
A New Lasting Family
While working as a Supervisor in Camden, he met Nancy Stroup. Nancy was a Service Representative who was under his supervision. Nancy and Emil began dating in September 1974 and at the strike of midnight on New Year's Eve 1976 he asked Nancy to marry him.
A little over eleven months later on November 13, 1976, they were married in Bellmawr, New Jersey, Nancy's hometown. The mayor of Bellmawr performed the ceremony at Bellmawr Borough Hall. Emil and Nancy went to Mexico City and Acapulco for their honeymoon. The following year they bought a home in Gloucester Township, New Jersey. Nancy gave birth to their first child, Michael, in October 1977. Nancy left Social Security three days before giving birth to become a stay-at-home mom. In November 1980 their second child was born. Despite Emil's efforts to name the newborn girl Prudence, she was named Jennifer.
Two months after the birth of Jennifer, at the relatively young age of forty-four, Emil had a massive heart attack. Luckily for him he had some warning signs and actually had the heart attack in the hospital. While many people would not have survived such an event, Emil made it. It would change his life forever, but he lived to see another day and more importantly see his kids grow up. A year later Emil found out that he was diabetic. This was no shock since his genetic history steered him toward the disease, but that made the news no less distressing.
Despite the fact that Emil's health limited his activities, it did not hold the family back. Throughout the 1980's they went on numerous family vacations and many day trips. If a trip or outing had to be canceled because of Emil's health, the family understood that flexibility was necessary and it would just be rescheduled. On the whole, his health stayed stable until he had a second heart attack in January 1988. While at work one day Emil began to feel many of the signs of heart trouble. Anyone who knew Emil knows how stubborn he could be at times. This day was no different. He drove forty-five minutes to the school where Nancy volunteered. Once again, he was as lucky as you can be and had the actual heart attack while in the hospital.
In the proceeding years, Emil's health problems seemed to slowly add up. Sinus trouble, hearing loss, macular degeneration, cataracts, sleep apnea and neuropathy were all added to the mix.
In 1999 Emil made one of the most difficult decisions of his life. He wanted to continue working but with his health affecting his ability to make it to work on a daily basis he decided it was time to retire. The Mount Holly Social Security office would have a new manager for the first time in its twenty-three year history and Emil would be at home on a regular basis for the first time in his adult life.
His newfound free time in retirement gave him a chance to catch up on tinkering around the house, doing chores, watching daytime talk shows and napping. On a more serious note, it enabled his day-to-day health to improve and gave him more time to spend with Nancy. Besides having lunch together every day, they were able to make use of Nancy's summers off from work to do some extensive traveling. They took trips to Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, New York and Washington, DC, but the highlight of their travels was a three-week trip across the country. They drove all the way to South Dakota, down to Colorado and back across the country. Emil always said that he never cared to travel overseas because there were still parts of the United States that he had not yet seen. He was able to check a lot of places off that list during the trip!
Emil's enjoyment of his retirement was eventually tempered by declining health. Diabetes and other health problems took a serious toll on his kidneys. In 2003 he was diagnosed with kidney disease. Several years of watching his diet and fluid intake postponed the inevitable but in 2006 he was hospitalized for over forty days during which he began kidney dialysis treatments. He would need these several hour-long treatments three days a week for the rest of his life.
Dialysis allowed most of Emil's health conditions to improve greatly. His diabetes, which throughout his life had caused a roller coaster ride of blood sugar levels, was now entirely under control. He was able to go off of all insulin and diabetes medication. He was now on fewer medications than he had been on in years and was even able to get off of the oxygen that he'd been on for a while. Emil still took trips with Nancy, attended family functions and lived life to the fullest extent that his health would allow.
Despite a rough year, 2006 was a very special year for Emil. Not only did he celebrate his seventieth birthday, but he and Nancy celebrated their thirtieth anniversary. To celebrate, Michael threw them a luau. Almost seventy of their family and friends celebrated with them.
In 2007 he had to endure another long hospitalization but when he was finally able to come home, he continued to work on regaining his mobility and getting back to normal. Though it seemed that his health was now becoming the central factor in his life, he still looked forward to the future. Nancy took him to dialysis early in the morning until his condition warranted him going to the acute dialysis center at the hospital. Then she used her lunchtime to take him and she and Michael would go to pick him up in the evening. Once his blood pressure was stable they'd bring him home and still make a dinner and sit and eat as a family as they always had.
In September 2007 Emil was the victim of bad luck when he went out to eat at a local diner with Michael and Nancy. While he had innumerable chronic health conditions that threatened his life, he was nearly the victim of choking, something that could happen to anyone regardless of the state of their health. As he began eating his dinner, a piece of veal became lodged in his throat. Nancy immediately recognized that something was wrong and called for help. Emil's bad luck immediately turned around when a lady at the next table identified herself as an emergency room nurse. She attempted the Heimlich maneuver but was unable to dislodge the food. Luckily an employee of the county coroner's office named Michael Price was at the diner. He came forth and was able to dislodge the veal. Emil was then taken to the hospital which was only a block or so away. After being moved to another hospital he was home in a few days and back on course with his rehabilitation schedule.
The amount of effort required to keep up with his health continued to increase, but Nancy never batted an eye at doing whatever it took to keep Emil healthy as possible.
After another hospitalization in December 2007, and celebrating Christmas and the New Year at home with the whole family, Emil was rushed to the hospital again in the early hours of January 6, 2008. In less than twenty-four hours he was moved to the Critical Care Unit (ICU). Even though he needed to be on a respirator so that fluid could be cleared from his lungs, he was awake and alert. He couldn't speak but he managed to communicate. He even communicated his thoughts about the presidential election very emphatically when Michael told him that Hillary Clinton had won the Maine primary. Politics always was one of his favorite topics.
Despite fighting hard against his many life-threatening conditions, dialysis and other factors weakened his already fragile heart. On January 9th, with his family around him he went into sudden cardiac arrest. Emil's biggest fear in life was dying alone. While he may not have been able to avoid the inevitable end that we all face, Emil spent most of his last day with his wife and children. Nancy, Michael and Jennifer were with him until the very end.
A Lasting Legacy
Maybe you remember Emil as a man who loved to debate any topic with passion. Maybe what stands out for you is his deep respect for all living things, plant or animal. Or perhaps you have another special memory of Emil. No matter what, his sense of humor and love of life will ensure that he will live on forever in the memory of his family and everyone who knew him.