The first committee was convened to consider a possible celebration event to honor the heritage handed to us by our forefathers. The committee was asked to consider a golf tournament as a possible activity to communicate the theme. They were unanimous in their response that a golf tournament of this magnitude would never fly, especially in our geographic area — a crazy idea.
— Samuel Restivo Sr.
Past chairman, Italian-American Charity Golf Tournament
The late Samuel Restivo Sr. stewed about that contrarian view described above for two weeks a half-century ago, but he wasn’t about to let the dream die.
So another committee was formed.
The crew included Mike Guinta, Jim Barone, Anthony Brigiotta, Cappy Caprino, Phil DeMarco, Robert Enserro, Gino Micciche, Joe Mistretta, Angelo Munella, Jack Munella, Joe Restivo and Anthony Tuccio. Restivo was the chairman.
Their first meeting was relatively short. Discussion was minimal. What had once been deemed a “crazy idea” just days before was almost immediately embraced by this new group of 13, a collection of friends, who loved golf, but who loved their heritage even more.
And by early June 1971, the first Italian-American Charity Golf Tournament was held at Jackson Valley Golf Club in Warren, Pennsylvania. For the record, Fred Cusimano Jr. and Tim Edwards held off 81 other teams to claim the first title. Proceeds from the event — nearly $3,000 — went to the American Cancer Society.
“We are definitely planning to have a similar tournament for charity next year,” Sam Restivo said afterward.
Five decades later, it is stronger than ever.
The 50th annual IA was supposed to be celebrated last year at Holiday Valley Resort, but it had to be canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee had no choice. While golf was played during the coronavirus outbreak — as long as appropriate social distancing and other safety precautions were observed — the idea that the IA could maintain those requirements was just not feasible. Because, really, this event is not only for the participants, but also for their families. Hundreds of people descend on the resort in Ellicottville for fun, fellowship, food and music, with three rounds of golf thrown in for good measure.
“The one thing that’s hard to describe is that instead of just saying, we play in a golf tournament, we have a hot dog and we go home to our families, we have 88 families show up with their children, and everyone who plays in the tournament treats it like a vacation,” Chairman George Panebianco said last year. “They plan their whole year around it.”
UPMC Chautauqua, formerly WCA Hospital, is the beneficiary.
Amidst the fun, the group is also very much aware of a larger battle — the fight against cancer. Proceeds from the tournament benefit the hospital’s cancer treatment program.
The quote from Restivo at the beginning of this story was included in the 1995 25th anniversary IA program book. As it has turned out, the decision he and his dozen friends made decades ago has turned out to be prophetic.
Since that first tournament in 1971, the Italian-American Charity Golf Association has raised in excess of $1.45 million.
“We made a switch to go from the American Cancer Society to donating our money locally, and the donation exploded,” committee member Joe Paterniti said. ” … We’ve made as much as $67,000 (in a year). People believe in what we do and want to be involved. They love our tournament. I live for this thing.”
The impact the tournament has had financially cannot be overstated. In fact, since 2000, the Italian American Golf Association has donated to the following with three-year commitments of $150,000 ($50,000 per year): 2000-2003, Lumenis Versapulse Powersuite; 2003-2006, Digital Mammogram; 2006-2009, Endoscopy Equipment; 2009-2012, Electromagnetic Bronchoscopy; 2013 Superdimension Ilogic System; 2012-2014 Fluoroscopic C-Arm; 2014-2017, Carestream DRX-Ascend System, 2017-2020, Oncology Treatment Room-Hillman Cancer Center.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind event and one of the first tournaments to do two things,” Panebianco said. “One, to celebrate our Italian heritage and then bring in a non-Italian (playing partner) to kind of meld the cultures.”
Just like the original committee had predicted way back when.
So much for a “crazy” idea, huh?
And, along the way, memories are made.
Henry Mole, an optometrist in Jamestown, sure has a few.
“When I think of the IA, my entire family and staff know that I refer to those four fun-filled days as ‘Christmas in June,’” he said. “Not only have I played in the tournament for over 25 years, but some of my fondest childhood memories were also going up to watch my father, “The Big Chief” Paul Mole, play in the tournament.
“Back then, it was played at Peek’n Peak. We would spend the day swimming, eating all the complimentary food, and watching the golfers come in. The IA has been part of my life for the last 50 years.”
In 2001, Mole and partner, Kirk Brown, won the whole thing.
“I can relive that final round like it was yesterday,” Mole said. “My dad came out and he got to watch all 18 holes as a spectator. He followed Kirk and I around the course the entire five hours. It’s hard to put in words the pride you feel when you are playing golf at the most competitive level in this area and your dad is there to watch you pull it off.”
Years later, Mole had a photo of his dad and nephew laminated and he keeps the image in his golf bag.
“During the IA, I usually keep it on the steering wheel of the golf cart under the scorecard,” Mole said. “Sometimes, when Tom Ames, my IA partner for the last 15 years, and I struggle, I’ll bring the card to the forefront and call on him for some good vibes. If the next shot I hit is less than perfect, I joke, ‘Chief, just send good vibes, but keep your hands off the golf club.’”
Other news and notes from the tournament:
– Jack Munella Sr., an original committee member, hasn’t played in the tournament since 2015, but his two sons and two grandsons now do.
“Although I dropped off, they’re carrying it on,” he said.
– Paterniti, a past chairman, reunites with seven or eight of his Jamestown High School (Class of 1979) buddies every year. Oh, the stories they could tell. One of their favorites involves Kevin Kaiser, who one year dropped a marshmallow on a green at Holiday Valley, right next to the flagstick. The unsuspecting player who had taken the blind shot up the hill, thought he had nearly holed out only to realize that his ball was 60 yards short of the green.
“It was the funniest thing I’ve seen in my life,” Panebianco said.
– There have been 12 chairmen since the event debuted. In order, they are Restivo, 1971-74; Ben Conti, 1974-76; Chic Fasciana, 1977-79; Sam Paladino, 1980-82; Jon Scalise, 1983-88 and 1996-98; Frank Vassallo, 1989-1995; LaMancuso, 1999-2001; John Calamunci, 2002-2007; Sebby Baggiano, 2008-2009; Jack Munella Jr., 2010-2015; Paterniti, 2016-2018; and Panebianco.
-There have been two two-time winners of the tournament and one three-time winner — the team of Carl Pillittieri and Bob Johnson.
-Gabe Panebianco played in the first 45 tournaments. Forty-five!
-In 49 previous events, there has been only one time — in 2013 — that it has been shortened by rain.
Of course, nothing can ever truly “rain on the annual parade” of this much-anticipated weekend.
“The IA is now here,” Mole said. “Tom Ames and I will ‘do battle,’ spend some time with good friends and, three days later, ‘Christmas in June’ will be over. On this Sunday, I’ll know that we are just 362 days away from the next IA, and the countdown commences.”