May 4, 2011 in City

Shawn Vestal: Small, kind acts bring about greatness

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photoBuy this photo

This week has been declared Random Acts of Kindness Week by Mayor Mary Verner and Gov. Chris Gregoire – after no small amount of lobbying by Tony Antonucci.
(Full-size photo)

Tony Antonucci knows it sounds corny.

But he’d like us all to take a moment and do something nice for someone. Something simple. Soup for a neighbor. Help in the yard. A listening ear. Something random and kind.

“Take time out to do something special – it doesn’t have to be huge,” said Antonucci, a retired Spokane educator. “Small things are of paramount importance.”

Antonucci – a self-described “fanatic” for helping others – has taken his appeal to the seats of power in Spokane and the state of Washington, and had this week declared “Random Acts of Kindness Week” by both Mayor Mary Verner and Gov. Christine Gregoire.

Now, declared memorial weeks and proclamations may not be all that meaningful in and of themselves. S-R writer John Craig recently called them the Cocoa Puffs of politics. And simple encouragement for people to be kinder, more friendly and giving – to be nicer – may strike us, in all our sophistication and bustle, as merely simplistic.

But you have to acknowledge the fundamental truth of the city’s proclamation: “WHEREAS, nice people help to create a kinder, more caring community throughout our beautiful city, and can help to perpetuate genuine acts of kindness through their own friendly behaviors and positive actions …”

Antonucci has made a campaign of his gentle nagging on behalf of kindness: Apart from his own vast experience as a community volunteer, he’s been a voice urging the rest of us to do the same. If you’re anything like me, when you talk to him, you become acutely, uncomfortably aware of how little you do for anyone other than yourself.

“I am a fanatic on helping people, only because I had a tough time along the way, and I wanted to give back,” he said. “I hope this doesn’t sound corny, but I’m sincere.”

A 74-year-old whose voice still bears the stamp of his Brooklyn childhood, Antonucci grew up in tough circumstances. The youngest of nine kids of Italian immigrants, Antonucci lost his parents at a young age – his dad died when he was 4, and his mother when he was 11. He was raised by sisters and relatives who lived on the same Brooklyn block.

Football became his ticket out. A center and linebacker at Manual Training High School, Antonucci drew the attention of scouts and attracted five scholarship offers.

“I got the map out and said I want to get as far away as I can, so I picked the University of Montana,” he said.

He moved to Missoula and never looked back.

“I loved, loved, loved being out there and I hated Brooklyn,” he said.

He didn’t play a lot, but he earned his degree, went to grad school, and then he went to work as a teacher and coach. He arrived in Spokane in 1967, working for years at Continuation High School, the precursor to Havermale alternative high school, and then as an elementary school counselor. He retired in 1999 after 32 years with Spokane Public Schools.

Meanwhile, he built a long résumé as a community volunteer. He organized turkey drives for Thanksgiving. He volunteered with one organization after another. His spaghetti and meatballs, prepared for fundraisers for three decades, have become a signature dish.

He recalls the birth of his charitable impulse. He was in his kitchen one day shortly after moving to Spokane, cooking as he listened to the radio. A commercial for Big Brothers came on: “Help a fatherless boy – join Big Brothers.”

“I said, ‘Oh, my gosh. I never knew there was such a thing,’ ” he said. “Being a fatherless boy myself, I jotted the number down.”

He became an ardent Big Brother and helper of the organization. His difficulties as a boy in Brooklyn – and the help he got from his father-figure football coach – became the impetus for decades of giving. Talking about those days, about losing his father or winning the coveted Lou Gehrig award twice as a high school athlete, can still bring Antonucci’s emotions to the fore. He no longer hates Brooklyn. He looks back on his childhood as a “Harvard education” of sorts, which has served him well as he’s worked with people in trying circumstances of their own.

He’s been pushing the Random Acts of Kindness proclamations since last year. That was when he first contacted me. I was initially lukewarm. Kindness, niceness, proclamations … where’s the news?

Recently, I heard from him again. This time, he said he’d persuaded the governor to sign a proclamation.

“I kept trying and didn’t get any answers,” he said. “I kept pushing and trying and finally it was before the governor and the governor signed it and it was beautiful.

“My next step is to do it for the U.S., signed by Obama. I’m going to try.”

The president’s been busy of late, but who knows. These days, our bad news is especially bad – from natural calamities to stupid, mean-spirited politics – and our good news – we got the bastard! – is being celebrated like it was a World Series victory. Our public sphere doesn’t seem to have a lot of room for a small, humane message.

Antonucci’s not deterred. He’s a true fanatic – he believes in the power of his beliefs to change the world, though the world can seem uninterested in changing.

It’s just a week, and it’s just a couple proclamations. Next week, it will probably be Frozen Yogurt Week or National Lentil Month. But this week, Tony Antonucci gets his say, however small.

“Life is tough,” he said. “We have to understand that we have to give back.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.

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