Missing Mr. Downtown

Published 9:33 pm Thursday, August 24, 2017

It’s been almost three weeks since Suffolk lost its downtown champion, and I still look for him whenever I turn a corner on North Main Street or West Washington Street.

Andy Damiani died Aug. 5 at age 95. He was a former mayor, a businessman and a downtown cheerleader who, until his health failed him, was almost always found walking around downtown. His funeral at St. Mary of the Presentation Catholic Church on Aug. 10 drew a large, diverse crowd paying tribute to a man who had taught each of them something.

When Andy’s tenure on City Council began, my parents had yet to graduate high school, so from the moment I met him, I knew he would be a good person from whom to soak up some wisdom. I always knew that if I needed any information about downtown or City Council from decades ago, Andy would have the answer.

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Andy was a reporter’s dream — talkative, opinionated, quotable and knowledgeable. I always knew that whenever I went to see him for any reason, I was going to get treated to a lesson on the history of downtown Suffolk and a lesson on the history of his European exploits in the same hour. Eventually, we might get back around to the original topic of conversation.

One of my favorite memories of talking to Andy was a discussion we had about downtown businesses. He told me he always made sure the area around his buildings was clean and suggested other downtown business owners do the same.

“You have to lead by example,” he told me. Bookstores fill their leadership sections with volumes upon volumes that can all be condensed to these six words.

A favorite memory of him relating his wartime activities came from the day he enlisted into the Army during World War II. Having left Juilliard when the call came, he earnestly told a soldier doing intake, “I’m a musician,” until the guy gave in and waved him toward another table where he could sign up for the band. Anybody who knew Andy knew how persistent he could be, so this story comes as no surprise.

Andy dearly loved downtown Suffolk, so much so that he moved from his Riverview home into a loft apartment in one of his buildings on West Washington Street several years back. I distinctly remember the through-the-looking glass feeling I had the first time I visited for an appointment. There was whimsical furniture from another era, a staircase starting on the second floor that appeared to go nowhere, music emanating from a place I couldn’t discern, and no Andy to be found. I eventually just sat down and soaked it all in until he appeared and we talked about whatever topic was on his mind that day.

Downtown, and the people who work here every day, will definitely miss Andy.