📷 Sal and Patricia LeDonne stand next to a mural in their home
By Sarah Champagne
SOUTHBRIDGE – A large mural is painted on the wall of the bright and airy living room at the LeDonne house. The painting, with soft edges bordering the scene, depicts a hillside village in central Italy called Rivisondoli. In Rivisondoli, a roaring underground river is audible from many parts of town, as Sal LeDonne recalls. That small community is where LeDonne spent his childhood before he moved with his family to the United States in 1956 as a teenager.
The mural serves as a warm reminder of LeDonne’s childhood home in Italy, even as he has settled down and raised his family in Southbridge for more than 60 years. LeDonne’s life has changed in many ways since arriving in the United States, but a common thread of family, community and connectedness has guided his journey throughout the years.
LeDonne came to the United States with his family on the last overseas trip of the S.S. Andrea Doria, which later sunk in a famous maritime collision near Nantucket Island. He and his family settled in Southbridge in the 1950s and worked hard to create a new life. At the age of 16, Sal found work at a bakery on Park Street called Mom’s Cake Shop, where he would arrive by 3 a.m. to help the Greek family who owned the business.
His arrival in Southbridge came less than a year after the devastating flood of 1955 that hit Southbridge particularly hard.
“Bridges were gone, there were houses with just the foundation left behind. But we settled in. And here we are today,” LeDonne says.
After working at the bakery for a while, LeDonne heard from a friend that United Lens was hiring. He applied for a job there and ended up finding a career. He worked for the local manufacturer for 18 years and eventually was able to purchase property to launch Big Discount Liquors on East Main Street with a partner. The business opened in 1981, with LeDonne eventually becoming the sole owner and president.
LeDonne became involved with the Southbridge community as a business owner, especially at the Italian Club on North Street, which he had been a member of since the age of 17. The club created opportunities to socialize with others with shared roots and provided a sense of belonging. LeDonne credits the sense of community his family found at the club with helping him through life.
“It became a place to go with the family on Sundays,” LeDonne recalls of the friends he made through the club. “We went through a lot, but we stuck together. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m here talking to you.”
The business owner with a keen sense of community and family also found ways to bring his values beyond the camaraderie of the Italian Club. LeDonne has been a member of charitable groups including The Exchange Club and The Lions Club and has given back to the community that he calls home in many ways. He is still a member of The Lions Club and is very proud of the work that group does.
At Big Discount Liquors, Sal also created friendly relationships with customers and many of the people he hired. The striking mural of Rivisodoli in his living room is the work of a former store customer and art teacher who helped develop the idea for the mural.
Sal’s mentorship of one of his employees at Big Discount Liquors made a big impression. Shannon Huard worked at the store for over 20 years, starting at entry level and working his way up to management at the store. Huard was able to translate that experience into management at another business once Sal retired and sold Big Discount Liquors, about eight years ago.
“He basically taught me everything about the industry that I know today,” says Huard. “I consider him to be like a father figure, a mentor. He has been an important part of my life in business, as a friend and as a mentor.”
Huard was sure to mention LeDonne’s commitment to others, revealing that his mentor frequently donated to community groups and supported festivals and organizations in Southbridge such as the annual Greek Picnic and the Polish Club.
“He gave so much to the community. He’s a great family man, and he’s always there for you, whatever you need. If there’s a problem, you could give him a call, and he’d be right there for you all the time,” Huard says.
LeDonne held leadership positions at the Italian Club for decades, serving as president most of that time. Several years ago, membership had diminished at the Italian Club; it had declined from the active social club of previous generations. At the same time, the building and grounds needed repairs.
The remaining active members discussed selling the property and closing the club. LeDonne did not want to let go of the spirit of community and family he had found there, or for it to be unavailable to future generations. He knew that it could return what it had been, but it would need a new direction and fresh life.
“I said, not under my name if I have anything to do with it,” LeDonne says.
The remaining members advertised a public meeting and tried to boost membership levels. As a result, a new generation of leadership emerged to renew Southbridge’s Italian Club.
“These guys really stepped up. They are proud to be Italian, of course, and that’s why they stepped up,” LeDonne says.
“I’d like to give the Lions Club a lot of credit. They helped out. And I’d like to give the new generation of the Italian-American Club a lot of credit also. They’ve kept the tradition going,” LeDonne says.
“It was almost gone. They stepped up to make it what it is today, and I am very proud of them,” he adds.
LeDonne was sure to mention several people who were involved in reviving the community and family traditions of the club. When asked about the club today, he says that it couldn’t have been successful without the efforts of Scott Garieri, Tony Postale, Paul DiGregorio, Mike Placella, Mike Bonadies and Jim Ciprari, among others.
In return, this new generation of leadership has a lot of admiration and respect for LeDonne.
“Sal has done a lot of work in the past to get the club to the point it is at now. He fought to hold on and to maintain it, to keep it,” says Scott Garieri.
“We consider him a bright light at the Italian Club,” Garieri continues. “He’s always there for us and shares the vast knowledge of the past, what has been done.”
Of course, LeDonne remains a supporter and advocate of the club in his retirement, and he stays involved, relishing the extended family and sense of community he still finds there.
Since selling his business several years ago and retiring, LeDonne has remained affectionately connected to Southbridge. He maintains a home with his wife of 55 years, Patricia, and he is proud of his two grown children and his three grandchildren.
LeDonne reflects on his long marriage and the ups and downs that he has seen over his life so far. The picture of health at home, he seems to be enjoying the fruits of his labor in retirement. He provides insight on the common thread of family, community and connectedness that seems to keep everything together over time.
“You have to never give up. And help each other out. Family is very important, and so is sticking together. That togetherness helps,” he says.