Eulogy for a Friend and Brother
From left to right
Ilustrísimo Señor Vincent William Griffo, Reverendísimo Don Carlo Murr-Létourneau y el Excelentísimo Embajador de Chilanguera, Señor Pirin “Raul” Dingas.
VINCENT WILLIAM GRIFFO, Requiescat In Pace
While all are welcome to read this eulogy to my beloved friend and brother, Vincent W. Griffo, my words are especially directed to the hundreds of young (and not so young) men and women, whose childhood home was Villa Francisco Javier Orphanage.
I met Vincent W. Griffo in July of 1982. Monseigneur Edward Melton, of loving memory, asked me to help out at Saint Agnes Cathedral (Rockville Centre, New York), while he and the other priests were away for summer vacations. I agreed on one condition: that he find 24 families willing to take 24 of my children for the summer. A week later he phoned me to say that, through the invaluable efforts of Dominican Sisters Josephine and Justine and a wonderful young couple, Joe and Linda Bertonetti, families had been found to host my kids. In a 15 passenger Dodge van, I drove 24 excited, yet unbelievably well-behaved children, ages 4 to 14, from central Mexico to the “Isle of Long”. It took a week.
When finally we arrived at Saint Agnes Cathedral and the kids left with their new families for six weeks, I sat down at the rectory dining room table, exhausted, for a well-deserved cup of mocha java.
I had less than $50.00 to my name at the moment; the van had a flat tire and the gas tank was on empty. The expression “making it on a wing and a prayer” was rarely more applicable.
Enter Mike “the Chief” Glaubinger, the man in charge of cathedral security. He joined me for some coffee and conversation. After fifteen minutes, he excused himself and returned five minutes after that with an address scribbled on a piece of paper. There was a $400.00 cheque waiting for me at an office in Valley Stream, he said, to put four new ties on the van.
“You might want to thank the godfather for the favor,” Glaubinger said on the q.t.
“The godfather?” I questioned the nebulous title.
“Vinny Griffo. He owns FBI and William Street Brokers.”
“He owns the FBI?”
“Not thee FBI; not the Federal Bureau of Investigation; FBI: Fundamental Brokers Incorporation, on Wall Street. “He calls the shots,” said Glaubinger with all the chutzpah of an insider trader, “Give him a call. Tell him the Chief sent you. There’s the number.”
Glaubinger intrigue apart, I dialed the 516 area code number to thank the unknown benefactor for his timely donation to the cause. If I’m not mistaken, it was a Tuesday morning and just happened to be Vincent W. Griffo’s day-off. After identifying myself and thanking him for the new set of treads, out of the clear blue, he asked me: “Do you swim?” The non sequitur threw me and when I hadn’t answered soon enough for him, Mr. Griffo gave me another chance to redeem myself: “Well, do you at least like gin and tonics?” I answered his first query saying that, if thrown overboard, not too far from shore, with the tide in my favor and the wind to my back, I stood a reasonable chance of making it to dry land. “But” I cautioned, “that would not be my idea of a good time. As for the reviver…”
“Reviver?” he asked.
“The gin and tonic water,” I answered, “Now there, you’re getting closer to what I’d call ‘a good time’”.
His laughter broke the ice. And, since he was free that day and I didn’t begin my tour of duty until the following morning, we met and sat around his newly installed swimming pool at number 6, Midfarm Road. Five minutes into the visit Mr. Griffo confessed that he himself couldn’t swim a stroke. What’s more, only the day before he had quit his swimming lessons at the RVC Recreation Center in protest. Apparently, Mesdames Sarah Finkelstein, Raz “You-Who” Goldberg, and Sophie Silverman - to name just a few of his matronly colleagues in the Beginners Swimming League - ridiculed him for flunking floating, and that, said Mr. Griffo, was enough of that.
That afternoon a great friendship was born between Mr. Vincent W. Griffo and me, one that would last almost 35 years.
In all those years of friendship, we acquired some very special meeting places. The second floor of Tre Scalini and L’Archilutto in Rome, Casadores and La Vianda in Guadalajara, Asti’s and Eddie Condon’s (both, of happy memory) in Manhattan were some of the locations we found most conducive to our philosophical colloquies. What did they all have in common? A decent house red and opera music. Once, in Guadalajara, a 12 piece Mariachi appeared and asked Señor Griffo if he had a request. Jokingly, he turned to me and said: “I don’t suppose these guys would know anything from Rigoletto.” The maestro smiled and gave him a wink. I’ll never forget Vinny’s face as they went into a rousing rendition of La Donna e Mobile and Questa o Quella, sung by a young Mexican tenor, in Italian, and, for an encore, performed von Suppé’s Dicter und Bauer Ouvertüre.
Vincent W. also had his serious side. And, believe it or not, so did I. We often discussed aspects of our Catholic Faith and points of spirituality, the morality and immorality of Wall Street, how to “stay the course” on such a tumultuous sea, and of course, we talked about the directions our personal lives were taking. We trusted each other. We had disagreements, some minor, some not so minor. After one major disagreement, we did not speak for four years, until, by the grace of God, the problem resolved itself and we were able to pick up where we had left off. That was an extremely wonderful day.
There was one thing Vincent W. Griffo was never comfortable talking about; all the good he did for others. I speak about it now, because he is no longer here to tell me to “keep a lid on it”.
An orphanage in Tepatitlan, Jalisco, Mexico, stands as testimony to the generosity and benevolence of Vincent William Griffo. Certainly there were others whose magnanimity was outstanding: Hal and Mary Madden, Kamal Salaame, Archbishop Nuño, and my own parents come readily to mind. But it was “my cousin Vinny” whom I could call, and did, whenever I got in trouble – and I was in trouble often and deeply. From c. 1982 to 1986, he donated over a million dollars so that orphaned children in Mexico would have a beautiful place in which to live, good food and clothing, formation and a Catholic education.
But it did not stop there. Vinny responded to many calls for help, both from people inside and people far outside his own world.
I came home from New York a few days after Vinny died. Two days after I arrived, I was visited by Antonio Pun. Like Vincent W., Antonio is one of the great and unique people in my life. He and his oldest son drove from Guadalajara on what he called, his “farewell tour”. The tall, always upbeat Chinese-Mexican, had just turned 91 and wanted to see me one last time before going to God. He also wanted to thank, once again, “most honorable man from New York” for his invaluable help in 1983.
It’s too long a story to tell here, but in 1983 I phoned Vincent W. at FBI and solicited his financial help to get 19 people released from Communist China. I can still hear him shouting through the phone: “What?! Chinese emigrants!!? Have you been drinking??” Still, the check arrived by DHL the following day and one-way tickets were issued for 19 of the happiest people on earth. Remind me to tell you the whole story one day. It’s really amazing.
As for the touring Antonio Pun; I told him that Mr. Griffo had died just the week before. “That’s OK,” he smiled, “I’ll thank him again myself, this time in person, and soon enough”.
Vincent W. Griffo did so much good in the time God gave him on earth. He loved much and was much loved in return.
There was one thing he repeated often: “I wish my faith was as strong as yours; I want you there when I go. You’ll be there, won’t you?”
My friend: Your beloved Kathleen was there. So were all seven of your loving children: Billy, Lorraine, Jeannine, Michael, Robbie, Bianca and Barbara Ann. So were their husbands and wives. And so were all of their children, your grandchildren.
And, as promised, my friend, so was I.
But you already know all of that, don’t you?
Before concluding, I express my deepest gratitude to the Triune God - Who saw fit to give me such a friend as Vincent W. Griffo. Gratia tibi, Domine! (Thank You, Lord!)