Frank DeSimone is seventy years old, and is a successful trial Philadelphia attorney who at one time served as assistant district attorney. He is short of stature and slight of build, with a soft, gravely voice and warm, open smile. Born in 1945, Frank is the grandson of immigrants from Naples. His grandfather came to Philadelphia in the early 1900s and got a job at a paint factory, where like many other workers, contracted leukemia from the noxious fumes. Frank’s parents ran a restaurant a few blocks from the family row house at 18th and Ritner.
As a child, he was quite pudgy, and was known by the other kids in the neighborhood as “Beanzie.” An elderly Jewish lady in the neighborhood who sometimes kept an eye on him after school gave him the Yiddish nickname “Frankele.”
“When I was older, they called me Beans McKinley,” he said, “because I would talk a lot and almost get into that lawyer stage even then!”
After school, a group of forty kids from the neighborhood congregated on Ritner Street, the main commercial artery of “New Italy.” “Everyone down here had a nickname,” Frank recalled, “which usually had to do with something you did, or you didn’t do. Bear, Bird, etc.” They played half-ball, stoop ball, and other games in the streets, which in the 1950s were still largely clear of cars. But Frank insists that few got into mischief either on the street or at school in St. Monica’s. There were, as urbanist Jane Jacobs noted in her book contemporary book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, too many eyes on the street. “In those days, we didn’t lock our doors,” he said. “And nobody had fences in back of their houses.” Plus, the last thing a student wanted was a note home from one of the nuns. Among the kids he grew up with was Ronald Donatucci, who also became a lawyer and is now Register of Wills. Perhaps the most famous resident was Tommy Loughran, world heavy lightweight boxing champion from 1927 to 1929. The “Philly Phantom” was considered a gentleman both in and out of the arena, and a devoted parishioner at St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church.
James Braddock vs. Tommy Loughran, July 18, 1929..
During high school, he took to heart the words of his surrogate Jewish grandmother: “lick the honey off the book pages.” Pushed to succeed in school by his own parents, Frank attended St. Joe’s Prep in North Philadelphia and then went on to Villanova University for college and law school, commuting from his parents’ home to save money.
Frank now lives on the Main Line and works in Center City. Yet he still frequently visits the old neighborhood to attend Mass at St. Monica’s, buy pastries from Cacia’s for Christmas and St. Joseph’s Day, and pick up a sandwich for his wife Lorrie from Nick’s Old Roast Beef. He occasionally brings his 28 year old son Frank Jr., a third year law student, along with him. “Like me, he’s a traditionalist,” Frank said about his son over a cup of coffee at the Melrose Diner. “I want him to know where his family comes from, and to be proud of it. And it means a lot to him.”
“When my son got into Harvard,” Frank added, “I went to my parents’ graves and thanked them. We did it.”
I met Frank Sr. for a tour of his old neighborhood on Sunday, March 22. Unfortunately, I missed the St. Joe’s cakes (also known as zeppole) at Cacia’s Bakery on Ritner Street by a few days. Termini’s was out of them, as well, so I had a cannoli instead, filled with ricotta cheese. Frank told me that these treasured custard-filled fritters, an Italian American favorite on the annual Festa di San Giuseppe on March 19, do not keep for more than a day, anyway. I’ll have to wait till next year.
For him, St. Monica’s Church is still the heart and soul of his Philadelphia, a city not of neighborhoods, but of parishes. St. Monica’s is a craggy Romanesque revival edifice dated from 1901. It was gutted by a catastrophic fire on January 8, 1971, but thanks to the generous donations of the nearby parishioners, it was restored to its full glory a few years later, albeit with modern pews and stained glass windows. Each pew bears the name of a sponsoring family, almost all of them Italian. While a bit forbidding on the outside, St. Monica’s is brightly lit and immaculate on the inside, with yellow walls, white plasterwork, and pastel murals on the ceiling and above the marble altar. The cross above the altar was covered by a Lenten shroud. The mass schedule is full, just as it was half a century ago. A stained glass window commemorates the fire and Father Aloysius Xavier Farrell, who spearheaded the rebuilding effort.
“When people ask where are you from?” Frank told me. “They say I’m from St. Monica’s Parish. When that was said to you, you not only knew the area of the city where they lived, but you knew something about their ethnicity, their education, their beliefs. Secondarily to the parish, you’d give them a street corner, not your address. That also would identify where you lived.”
He learned that early on in his legal career. While being interviewed at the public defenders office, the first question Vincent Siccardi asked him was “Frank DeSimone. Where are you from, Frank?”
“18th and Ritner!” Frank blurted out.
“You’re hired,” Siccardi responded immediately. “I hire guys from corners. They make good trial lawyers. I want you to work here.”
When I asked about Siccardi’s logic, Frank responded, “If you grew up on a street corner, you got to know people, you interacted with people, and were part of the fabric of the city. You have to make quick judgements when dealing with people, or you’re going to get teased or get made fun of, so you have to survive in that environment. When you’re in a courtroom, it’s the same thing.”
He took the job, missing out on a follow up interview from the District Attorney’s office. He would get there eventually, serving in the homicide department, before going into private practice. When picking a jury, Frank believes that knowing a person’s parish and corner is still the next best thing to a psychological profile.
Interview with Frank DeSimone, March 22, 2015.
“St. Monica,” Philadelphia Church Project, http://www.phillychurchproject.com/st-monica/