It is Saturday night at the Columbus Day Banquet. The Portland Golf Club is overflowing with smiling guests, drinks in hand. Dinner is finished, the panna cotta is on its way, the music and dancing has started. One man still mingles table to table. He greets old friends with a handshake, a good rib poke or a kiss on the cheek.
Bill Marinelli has been an integral part of the Italian community in Portland for more years than he wants to count. He is feisty, charming and painfully candid – he will always tell it like it is. He is also tenacious, fair-minded and a constant supporter of all things Italian. I am lucky to count him a friend.
We met at his home in Scappoose in July. He and his wife, Donna, moved to this rural spot about five years ago. The atmosphere suits Bill. He was busy finalizing details for the 2nd annual Donna Gedlich Bocce Tournament scheduled for the end of the month, a tournament that would never have happened had Bill not wanted to build a court in his backyard.
“I walked into the city building and I asked for the mayor or the city manager. I saw they were building a new park and wondered if all the space was full,” Bill remembered. “I had been thinking about putting a bocce court in my backyard, but then I thought it would be better to share my passion with other folks. The city thought it was a great idea too.”
It turned out that his neighbor was Donna Gedlich, a city council member. She became his biggest advocate. Bill’s experience with a similar project in downtown Portland had taught him some valuable lessons in court construction. Following his recommendations, the city council hired Bocce e Luce Construction LLC. Construction began in late April 2014 and finished just a month later. The courts officially opened with a ribbon cutting ceremony in June that year.
Located in beautiful Veteran’s Park, the Donna Gedlich Bocce Courts sit side-by-side and measure 80 feet by 12 feet each. They are constructed of cement with a synthetic surface that drains better and allows for more playtime.
“I didn’t recommend a natural surface because it needs so much maintenance,” Bill explained. “A synthetic surface is not as hard to maintain and drains better – you can play on it 10 minutes after it quits raining.”
Bordered by wood bumpers all around, the courts are completely ADA compliant; at the end of each court, the bumpers swing out to allow wheelchair access. Cement walkways lead from the street to the courts. Two scoreboards complete the set up and there are plans to add more seating and landscaping.
One of the scoreboards is dedicated to Donna Gedlich, who passed away during construction. The other is dedicated to William Gaetano “Bill” Marinelli. It is an appropriate honor for the man.
In addition to running the annual tournament, Bill has been trying to organize a league. It has been a challenge. “One thing I am finding out about Scappoose – small community, young families with young kids involved in athletics with no time for anything else. The seniors don’t know about it; they would rather play cards and socialize at the senior lunches. I am going to keep trying to get a league together but, if not, I’ll just keep playing with friends.”
Born in Portland, Bill grew up in Linnton, a small town that straddles U.S. Highway 30 about twenty miles northwest of Portland. The Marinelli family immigrated from Colle San Magno, Lazio. They built their homes on the steep hills above Linnton. Eventually, his father, Gaetano, and Uncle John opened a barbershop and bathhouse on the south side of the highway, and every night walked home up the long staircases that still snake up the hillside, connecting homes to the highway.
Bill’s mother was Zelda Lengacher. Her family homesteaded in Columbia County in 1889. They were loggers by trade and introduced floating log rafts and aerial logging to the lumber barons of the time, including Simon Benson. A great-uncle worked for the 1905 Lewis and Clark International Exposition in Portland and Bill still has a rocking chair from one of the Ladies’ Pavilions.
Bill’s parents met one afternoon when his mother was walking home from St. Michael’s Catholic Church in downtown Portland. It just happened that Gaetano was going to the home of his friend, Clark Gable, who lived in the same direction. Through the years, Gable visited the Marinelli family home a few times but as a youngster, Bill wasn’t impressed.
Looking back, Bill’s favorite memories revolve around Saturday’s with his grandparents. “I’d wear my grubby clothes and Grandpa would lead me around like a little puppy dog. Grandma would say, ‘I want two chickens, I want a rabbit, don’t forget the eggs, and weed that bed over there.’ Then she would start cooking for Sunday dinner while we worked through the afternoon.”
“Sunday’s were spent with family after church. I really miss that comradeship,” he continued. “I miss the box in the back of the head, the honest candor, everybody knew where everybody stood and we never held a grudge.”
Our conversation turns back to bocce and I ask him how long he has been playing. He remembers his grandfather and uncles getting together with friends and playing bocce in Duniway Park in Old South Portland, when the area was Little Italy. “But the kids didn’t get to play. We only got to throw balls when the old guys weren’t on the courts.”
“It was probably the late 1980’s, early 90’s when I really got into it. I got involved with the folks at Club Paesano. There were farmers who had courts, like the Calcagno’s in St. John’s. Some of the farms along the Columbia River had courts. When (Dick) Ponzi built the courts at his vineyard and the Festa Italiana started having a tournament, I was involved in that.”
I couldn’t leave our afternoon without asking about Bill’s most distinguishing feature, his small handlebar mustache. It makes him instantly recognizable.
The answer is not as unique as I thought it might be. “I was clean shaven until we were expecting our first child,” he laughed. “I’ve had it ever since.”