Joseph “Bepi” Baldassi’s life reads like a fairytale or an adventure story: born in Italy, pulled into WWII, fought in Tunisia, captured and sent to America, escaped from a boat near Acapulco, made his way to Mexico City–– the list goes on. Despite his extraordinary life, however, Joseph maintained a very simple life philosophy: work hard, be happy, and leave the rest to God. His greatest treasure was his family, and no matter where life took him, he never lost his sense of humor, his optimism, or his faith.
Joseph was born on January 12, 1922, in Codroipo, Italy. His proud parents, Davide and Maria Teresa (Baruzzini) Baldassi, christened their son Guiseppe Baldassi. Joseph grew up with six siblings: Luigi, Beniamino, Attilio, Danilo, Catterina, and Angela. Davide and Maria Teresa made a living as farmers. Young Joseph helped out at home by starting the cooking fire and caring for the family cow. In his free time, he could often be spotted riding his bicycle or playing soccer with friends. Joseph’s formal schooling ended after fifth grade, at which point he was apprenticed to his uncle, a carpenter. He studied the craft of furniture-making, and his earnings helped to make ends meet at home during the Great Depression. Although he left school at the age of eleven, Joseph had a love of learning that stayed with him his whole life. He loved reading books and periodicals, and would eventually become fluent in three languages – Italian, Spanish, and English.
When Joseph was only nineteen years old, he was drafted into the St. Marco’s Military Division of the Italian Navy. While he was fighting in Tunisia, he was captured by the British. He was thereupon turned over to the Americans and he ended up picking cotton in a POW camp in Arizona. Well, he was supposed to be picking cotton – the way Joseph told it, he spent part of the day playing cards with his friends, and then filled out his cotton sack with a few stones in time for the evening weigh-in! After Italy surrendered, Joseph signed a collaboration agreement and was moved to the Benecia Arsenal in San Francisco. Although he still had to remain in U.S. custody, he was now being paid for his work.
The war ended in 1945, and Joseph was finally on his way home. He and other former POWs were put on a ship that was headed for Italy, in order to be repatriated. The ship was overcrowded and dysentery was rampant. So when the ship broke down off the coast of Acapulco, he and two friends escaped. They ended up in Mexico City, where Joseph found work as a janitor, gardener, and carpenter.
A few years after he had settled in Mexico, Joseph became friends with a fellow carpenter named Raul. One evening, Raul invited Joseph home to have supper with his family. Joseph enjoyed meeting Raul’s family – especially his sister, Olivia Mejia. Joseph and Olivia began courting and the couple was married a few months later. Over the years, Joseph and Olivia were blessed by the births of seven children: Aida, David, Maria, Catalina, Joe, Paul and Helen.
In 1959, Joseph and his family immigrated to the United States. They settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin because his sister Catterina and brother-in-law Peter Baruzzini were living there. Tragically, Olivia died of leukemia only a few short years later. Joseph was left to support his seven children alone, the youngest of whom was only one year old. He worked night and day to provide for his family, including a full-time position at Grede Foundry. He never remarried, choosing instead to stay faithful to Olivia’s memory, and visited her grave without fail twice a year.
As his children grew older and left the nest one by one, Joseph began to have some free time. He used this new-found leisure to complete small wood-working projects, including replicas of ships and old-fashioned powder guns. He also traveled extensively, visiting countries throughout Europe and even venturing as far as Australia. At home, he always kept up on current events, and enjoyed reading periodicals. He wasn’t a passive reader, and developed strong opinions (to put it mildly) about politics, both domestic and international. He enjoyed airing his views, and often concluded with a sarcastic but smiling “God Bless America!” or “Only in America!”
Joseph became a familiar sight to the residents of the East Side, where he was famous for taking long, early morning walks, often accompanied by one of his beloved Boxers. As he strolled along, he would always keep an eye out for cans to recycle and cigarette packets, the labels of which he could turn in for merchandise points. He was a model of industry and thrift, grossing over $1,500 in aluminum deposits in one year alone. He also earned a number of small luxuries with the Marlboro points, including a television, a lamp, and a leather jacket.
Joseph took great joy in his family, as a father, a grandfather, and eventually a great-grandfather. For decades, his extended family would gather at “Bepi’s” house on Sundays, to eat, to watch sports (Joseph’s favorites were soccer and boxing), to celebrate birthdays, or just to be together. Joseph tried to pass on his life lessons to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He encouraged them to get a good education, and to always be polite: “Be good,” he would say in his Italian and Spanish-inflected English, “it no cost you nothing.”
Optimistic, quick-witted, and kind-hearted, Joseph was a devoted husband, a loving father and grandfather, and a loyal friend. He will be deeply missed and lovingly remembered by his many dear friends and family members.
Joseph “Bepi” Baldassi was born to eternal life on Friday, May 4, 2012, at the age of ninety. He was preceded in death by his beloved wife, Olivia. His family includes his children, Aida (Martin) Chiger, David (Jane) Baldassi, Maria (Jim) Love, Catalina (Roger) Richardson, Joe Baldassi, Paul Baldassi, and Helen Christus; his grandchildren, Olivia, Justin, Katrina, Tony, Michelle, Cassandra, Anna, Maria, Nicole, Kimmy, Andrea, and Paul; his great-grandchildren, Teddy, Tyler, Quincy, Mirella, Bradley, Ayla, Sebastian, and Brayden; and other relatives in Italy, Mexico, Australia, and the United States.
Family and friends will gather at 10 a.m. on Saturday at Three Holy Women Parish – St. Rita Church 1601 N. Cass Street until the time of the Memorial Mass at 11:00 a.m. Private inurnment will be at Holy Cross Cemetery. The family has been served by Suminski LifeStory Funeral Home. Please visit Joseph’s personal memory page at www.lifestorynet.com, where you can learn more about his life, share a favorite memory or photo, and sign the online guestbook.