A love story – lest we forget
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 19, 2003
Editor’s note: This column was published in the Sunday, Feb. 16th edition of the Suffolk News-Herald, but did not post as sent to the Web site.
By Robert Pocklington
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It was around 1900 that a 12-year-old boy emigrated from Italy and settled with his family in the Wilkes-Barre area of Pennsylvania. His name was Amedeo Obici and he was destined to make the lowly peanut – and Planter’s Peanuts – a household word.
He began by selling them roasted from a stand on a city street corner, and this quickly led to several push wagons there and in nearby cities that required a considerable amount of peanuts. Being an entrepreneur he sought to eliminate the middlemen by visiting an area where they were grown. He came to Suffolk where he could buy the best peanuts and sometime later borrowed money from the Farmers Bank of Nansemond and purchased King Cleaning Plant to maintain his supply.
Shortly thereafter he and his beloved wife Louise, who spoke little English, moved into a home on North Saratoga Street. They began to change the face of Suffolk forever.
His Planters Peanut operations expanded rapidly over time, here in Suffolk, in Willkes-Barre, Toronto, and on the West Coast. In the early 1920s he purchased Bay Point Farms where he built a fine home for Louise.
He was shattered when in 1938 Louise died. She was temporarily interred in Cedar Hill cemetery until such time he could arrange construction of a proper mausoleum in Cedar Hill or on the property now known as Obici House.
He was not only troubled by the loss of his beloved Louise, he could not seem to arrange a suitable resting place for her. He wanted a permanent place for her memorial and internment.
Some months before Pearl Harbor his personal secretary, Harry Pettit, under cloak of darkness, drove Amedeo Obici to 112 Bosley Ave. for a second dinner meeting with three men who had agreed to assist in building the memorial for his wife, Louise, and a hospital for the community.
Following dinner with the M.A. Cross family, they retired to the living room. As they had done so often together, the good friends all lit up cigars.
This was no board of directors meeting, just four men toying with a marvelous dream that they would one day make real.
Mr. Obici advised them that he had opened a new trust account with the Scranton National Bank (about $163,000 in 1941 dollars) and he would make annual contributions. He suggested there initially be no publicity.
Mr. Obici had little time for details; M.A. Cross would head up the project and watch expenses. Whitney Godwin was to ensure the best in taste and highest quality materials. Lewis Cathey, in time, would be the point man with the public and press.
The group agreed that someone with legal training would be needed – William Birdsong should be approached and he later accepted.
They were to reach Obici with questions only through Harry Pettit, who would take care of any necessary paperwork. Otherwise there were to be no notes made.
Late in 1941 Pearl Harbor and all out war brought the plans to a temporary halt.
Then in early August of 1943, after another dinner with the Cross family, Mr. Obici advised that he had made an important decision; he had instructed his secretary to prepare &uot;paper&uot; that, should anything happen to him, would ensure that the project go forward with the benefit of the &uot;bulk&uot; of his financial holdings. Other subjects, like Lakeview, doctors, nursing school, and location were discussed. They were instructed not to ask for financial help from the community.
When the war was concluded the four men met with Mr. Obici in the spring of 1946. They realized they needed someone familiar with construction and Jim Causey was selected to join the team. Vernon Eberwine was brought on board to represent Nansemond and the other nearby counties. Both men agreed to serve.
Mr. Obici was opposed to doctors (Dr. Ed Joyner had been proposed) serving on a Board of Directors but suggested they elect a representative to attend certain meetings.
The team was in place and ready when, less than a year later, Mr. Obici died in Florida, never to see the completion of his memorial to Louise.
The community quickly learned of his will and generosity. Harry Pettit had indeed prepared proper &uot;paper.&uot; Suffolk was to have what was believed to be the heaviest endowed hospital south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
The Louise Obici Memorial Hospital opened in 1951. Wide green lawns and plantings led to the great steps leading into the lobby and Memorial Rooms dedicated to Louise. At the direction of the Board, Mr. Obici was also entombed in the heavy marble covered vaults. Fine portraits were commissioned and hung to the west of each vault. Paintings and other fine objects from their Bay Point estate were tastefully included.
Within a few short years the original three cigar smokers who shared and planned the dream with Mr. Obici were also dead.
As the years passed the hospital was expanded in all directions except the direction the original plans indicated – up. The spacious green lawns gave way to parking areas. A Memorial Room gave way to a reception desk and telephone exchange. The gift shop was moved within the memorial area and most of the fine art objects were moved out. Later still came the out-front doctor offices with a garish sign over its front entrance.
Earlier this past year Louise was moved out of the half-century memorial in her name, made possible by her husband, Amedeo, to a new &uot;Obici Hospital&uot; – a new health care facility that conveniently omits Louise or Memorial from its name.
Any perpetuity in a meaningful memorial to Louise as funded and intended by the cigar smokers is destined to fade – lest we forget.
Robert Pocklington is a resident of Suffolk and a regular columnist for the News-Herald.