I ran into Tony Cella the other night at the last place I expected to see him: sitting at the bar in Gober's Lounge in Exeter. The funny thing is I had just run into him the very night before. That was at The Gramercy restaurant in Pittston. Prior to these two encounters, I had seen him not more than once in the last 15 years, maybe longer.
Tony is going to take issue with the label "legend" but that's what he is to me. And to scores of others. Tony's been retired from his 30-plus year career as golf pro at Fox Hill Country Club for more than 18 years now, but many around here still consider his name synonymous with the sport. His name and his dad's, the late Anthony "Sherriff" Cella, another local legend.
That Tony calls me by name still blows my mind, as we Baby Boomers like to say. Yes, I wrote sports during a good portion of Tony's career, and yes, we have a ton of golfing acquaintances in common, but I myself have never touched a club. Tony's never bumped into me on a tee or in a locker room. Guess he doesn't hold that against me.
Why was I surprised to see Tony at Gober's? Probably because I'm still surprised to see me at Gober's. I used to stop there if I'd heard Bill Space and his sidekick Karl Metzger, who went by The Great Rock Pair, were playing, but that hasn't happened in some time. However, my friend Paul Martin, who earns his living playing guitar and singing, has landed at Gober's from time to time of late and when he's booked, I make it my business to show up. That was the case last Friday. And there was Tony Cella sipping a Yuengling while waiting for an order of steamed clams.
Since I was by myself, I grabbed the stool next to him and for the next hour or so, with Paul providing background music, Tony and I "shot the breeze," as my dad used to say.
Although we did reminisce about the days when you had to have a sponsor to be considered for membership at Fox Hill and there was a waiting list a mile long, we talked not so much about golf but about golfers, starting with my old boss the late "Pidge" Watson and his late son John. Pidge is the reason I never played golf, I told Tony. That's because he wanted to play golf and someone had to stay behind and get out a newspaper.
"Pidge always played with Tony Donato," I began and Tony Cella finished the sentence with, "along with Biagio Dente and Doc Campanella." I got the impression he recalls every foursome who ever played while he was there. As far as John "Chickie" Watson is concerned, well, Tony couldn't say enough about him. "One of the best I ever saw."
Once we got started, the names came rapid-fire. Carlyle Robinson. Billy Lawler. Wally Kuharchik. Ed Hennigan. Bob Gill. Of course, Art Brunn. And many, many more. Tony had a story or two about all of them.
We talked about Tony, himself, a little bit too. Not golf, though, other stuff. Stuff I never knew. Like how he was a three-sport athlete at Exeter High in the ‘50s. In true Tony Cella fashion, however, the conversation was always about the other guys, not him. "Big Joe" Adamitis, for example.
Tony was a 5'9 senior point guard on the basketball team when Joe made the squad as a freshman. He was already about 6'5, Tony said. The rest of the positions were filled by cousins Joe and Mike Fedorsha, and Bob Cicon, son of Coach Charlie Cicon. Tony said Exeter won the league title that year and with Big Joe at center, the next three after that.
I had not known Bob Cicon and Tony were classmates. I told him how Bob and I had become good friends playing tennis back in the mid-70s and how when I took up running Bob gave me some valuable advice. "Running is a sport," he said, "and like any other sport you are going to have good days and bad. Don't give up because of an occasional bad day."
"That sounds just like Bob," Tony said.
We talked so long, Tony almost forgot about his order of clams and when they arrived he had been there longer than he'd intended, so he asked if the clams could be packaged to go. "I don't see why not," the bartender said, and that gave me an idea. I ordered clams to take home to my wife knowing she'd be delighted.
It takes me less than 10 minutes to get from Gober's to my home so the clams were still warm and the butter still melted when I got there. While Mary Kay enjoyed her surprise, I pulled up a chair, got myself a beer from the fridge, and told her all about spending the evening with a legend.
Just as I'm telling you now.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.