Colorado Springs jumped nine places from 11th to second on this year’s U.S. News and World Report’s list of “Best Places to Live,” and I know why.
My friend Mr. Caputo just moved there.
I know what you’re thinking: you call your friend “Mister” Caputo?
Well, no. But every kid he taught does. Many of them are now grown men and women, but they cannot call him anything but.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I ran into one of his former students at Planet Fitness. As with most folks who hear the news of Mr. Caputo’s migration westward, Mike Thomas was taken aback. Mr. Caputo is part of the very fabric of Greater Pittston.
Not only did Mr. Caputo teach Mike, he also was his tennis coach. He asked me to tell my friend that he just bought his niece a tennis racquet.
“I want to pass on to her what Mr. Caputo taught me,” he said.
How big an influence was Mr. Caputo on his students? Mike told me a story of when he was still in high school and another teacher asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up.
“I want to be Mr. Caputo,” one of them said.
“We all did,” Mike added.
Mr. Caputo is known by different names to different people. I call him Mike. His wife, as well as the many friends he’s made in Italy, call him Michael. His childhood friends call him Cap. And his mother sometimes called him Mickey.
Once, close to 40 years ago, Mike and I were waiting for a tennis court at Marywood College and he commented that the two guys finishing up on the court in front of us were playing great tennis.
“You’re right,” I said. “And you know who was playing great tennis on that same court last week? Mickey and Eddie.”
“Who are they?” he asked, then realized I meant us.
That speaks to Mike’s humility. He found it hard to believe he was playing great tennis, even though he was. He’s always been that way, whether it was his tennis or his teaching or even his relationships. He always felt there was room to improve. And always strove to do so.
We said that’s what kept the two of us playing tennis for the last 45 years. We kept trying to get better and kept pushing each other to that end.
Back in the early years our favorite player was the Argentine Guillermo Vilas. We saw a photo of him in a magazine after a training session. He was hanging over the net dripping with perspiration, totally spent. It became our goal to be just that exhausted after every time we played. We didn’t want to hold anything back and never did.
As they always do whenever we get together, tennis memories came up when Mike and I shared a beer a couple of nights before his departure. We talked about how many times we showed up at public courts only to find the gates locked and would climb over those 12-foot fences, play a couple of hours, and then climb back out again. We even did this once or twice in our 50s.
My friendship with Mike Caputo began when I was 10 years old and he 13. He coached the farm team I played on in the Pittston Little League. All of us players were sitting in the bleachers behind the first base line and Mike and fellow coach Billy Kroski were asking us our names and what positions we wanted to play.
“Look at this guy,” Mike said when it came my turn. “All he does is smile. We should call him Smiley.”
The nickname never stuck. When the season ended, Mike and I hardly saw each other again until I turned 21 and started hanging around the bars in downtown Pittston. We soon became fast friends, spending countless hours tooling around in his 1969 Pontiac GTO.
We went through all sorts of things together including this crazy “Lose 10 Pounds in 10 Days Diet,” which meant eating almost nothing but boiled cabbage. You don’t get through something like that without a buddy.
A couple of years ago, Mike tracked down a ’69 GTO and had it restored. On my last birthday he picked me up in it and took me to lunch. A mix tape of the songs we listened to “way back when” was playing in the car.
That car got shipped to Colorado Springs along with his and his wife’s belongings last Tuesday. The next morning, Mike boarded a plane to go off and begin a new life. Our tennis run has come to an end, but we milked it right through last summer. We have no regrets.
When we were young guys, Mike dated one pretty girl after another. They all looked the same, dark hair, dark eyes. Then he met Ann. I remember the first time he told me about her. We were sitting next to a field in Clarks Summit watching my little boy Michael (named after Mike Caputo) play soccer. I had never before heard Mike use the word “love” when talking about a girlfriend but he did that day.
“The funny thing is,” he said, “she’s not my type.”
“Let’s face it, Mike,” I countered, “your type is not your type.”
He and Ann have been married about 25 years and that’s where the relocation to Colorado Springs comes in. Their daughter, Teresa, and her husband, Joe, live there. More importantly, so does their 2-year-old grandson Joey.
Mike told me he wrote a letter to that little tyke with the idea that he can read it years from now, perhaps even after Mike has passed on.
“I told him how I am leaving behind a life I’ve built for the past 71 years just to be close to him,” he said. “I told him the only thing allowing me to do this is love. I want him to know how powerful love is, particularly my love for him.”
In Colorado Springs, Mike most likely won’t hear “Mr. Caputo” very often, or “Cap” or “Mickey.” But every day he will hear a new name that means far more to him than all the rest: “Poppi.”
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.