TAMPA — The small, 114-year-old Italian Club Cemetery is crowded, but there are still burials. Many of them are widows whose husbands died young in Tampa's early hard days, leaving them to raise children alone, keep them fed and get them educated. Those sturdy widows — now in their 80s and 90s — are joining their husbands at the Italian Club Cemetery these days with sad regularity.
Their stories, engraved on the cemetery's tombstones, are the story of Tampa. They are women who themselves never had childhoods, who left school early to help their families survive, who married and bore children young, who lost their husbands to heart disease, or cancer, or alcohol, or war. They are mothers whose children were the first in the family to go to college and climb upward to become the commercial and political backbone of modern Tampa.
Such is the story of Frances Campisi Perrone. She was 82 when she died the day after Christmas. She was laid to rest Wednesday, among the stone angels, beside her husband, Joe, who died of a brain tumor in 1966 when he was 48. He was paralyzed for nine years before he died.
Like so many others, she had no childhood of her own. Her parents, Tony and Mary Campisi, ran a poultry and fish market at Nebraska and Curtis. Her father also trucked in produce and flowers. She left school in the eighth grade to become her father's cashier.
What the girl loved most were the gladioli she helped sell in bunches for pennies — the poor man's flower — a staple of Tampa weddings and funerals.
She married Joe Perrone. He sold tomatoes at the Tampa Wholesale Produce Market. They had two sons, Samuel and Anthony. The boys peddled gladioli in the neighborhood, three bunches for a dollar.
Samuel was 18 and Anthony was 16 when their dad died. Her mission was for them to be the first of the family to go to college.
She had two cousins — Vincent and Samuel Caranante — just coming out of dental school. They wanted her to work at their new practice.
Work experience was not an issue. "She'd worked all her life," said cousin Vincent.
He and Samuel sent her to school to train as a dental assistant. She ended up working alongside "Dr. Vince" for 30 years. She worked at the Blue Ribbon Market in Ybor City on weekends. She cleaned the house at night. She accomplished her mission of putting both her boys through college.
The lesson her boys learned: "We know what struggle is," Samuel said.
She never remarried, but in retirement, she found a friend — Giuseppe Canestraro — whom she traveled to Sicily with to trace her family roots. She found the oval plate her father and grandfather used at supper as small boys. She was there on Sept. 11, 2001. All she knew was terrorists were attacking America. Was her family safe? She called her son Samuel in a panic.
"9/11 changed her," Samuel said. "It put a fear in her."
Her health declined. She never went back to Italy.
On Wednesday, family and friends packed the small cemetery to pray with the Rev. Thomas Stokes, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, where the Perrones were married.
Her casket lay over her husband's tomb, surrounded by the marble monuments and tiled tombs of Tampa's Italian families: Valenti, Sedita, Ferlita, Martino, Dolcimascolo.
Her casket was covered with gladioli.
John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or [email protected]