John Panichella's Story

If there was a dictionary entry for the adage, “live life to the fullest,” the definition would likely include a picture of John Panichella. John spared nothing in everything he did—serving customers at Greensburg, Pa.’s Davis Supermarket, doting on his children, or sharing laughs with friends over a game of cards—and always with his trademark generous smile and easygoing demeanor. Long-time friends and occasional acquaintances alike would agree: you couldn’t help but like John. John’s love of life was no doubt the result of being born into a large, boisterous Italian immigrant family, the second youngest of six brothers and three sisters. His father, a railroad worker, moved the family from George’s Station, Pa., to a house on White Street in Greensburg when John was 7. Among John’s many playmates growing up was his best friend, Bernard Petersen, the son of Swedish immigrants who lived next door. Although life took John and Bernard on different paths, they remained friends for the rest of their lives. John’s many activities as a child included a paper route. A dependable carrier, he took extra care with his customers in well-to-do neighborhoods, ensuring their paper arrived on the porch, and out of the rain. After all, he reasoned, they were the ones who provided the biggest tips. Similar reconnaissance guided John’s trick-or-treat forays on Halloween, leading him to the homes that gave out the best candy, including those coveted nickel chocolate bars.

Food was a natural centerpiece of John’s family life. Spaghetti and meatballs, by tradition, was served for dinner every Sunday and Thursday, and became John’s favorite dish. His father also made wine in the cellar, and everybody pitched in when it was time to make homemade sausage. Home-grown food would also inspire John’s life-long love of gardening. He would grow tomatoes, basil, and peppers to add a special taste to his favorite Italian meals. In high school, John began working part-time in the produce department of Davis Supermarket. It was the start of a 55-year career of dedication and hard work that took him to the position of department manager. Applying his natural personality to his job, John knew how to charm his female customers. But he was particularly attracted to a supermarket cashier named Virginia Bronson, and the feeling soon became mutual. Near the end of the workday, John would often find some means to waylay Virginia so that she’d miss her bus. He’d then have no choice but to drive her home. Virginia was the love of John’s life, but he wasn’t above playing tricks on her. Relenting to Virginia’s pleas for a preview of her engagement ring, John presented her with a small, gaudy token he’d secretly bought at the 5-and-dime store. He watched straight-faced as Virginia resigned herself to the gift and its “thought that counts” meaning. The charade didn’t last long; John soon offered Virginia a real engagement ring, symbolizing a love that would only grow deeper through the years.
John was particularly close to his younger brother Jim (left). When John’s health declined, Jim visited his brother every Saturday.

They would have three children, and he proudly shared their accomplishments, from their first steps to going to college, with anyone who would listen. He worked hard at multiple jobs to get his children the things they needed and the money necessary to continue their education. Though John didn’t have a formal education, he was immensely proud that his children and grandchildren had achieved so much. John also loved spending time at the Hilltop Club, originally established as a social club for Greensburg’s Italian immigrant families. There, he’d join friends to play cards or games of bocci at a specially built indoor court. Yet he never missed a Sunday at Our Lady of Grace Church, the same place where he’d been baptized, confirmed, and married. John contributed his knowledge of food and eye for beauty to the church’s fundraisers by crafting beautiful fruit baskets that often included a bottle of his homemade wine. Listening to the radio was one of John’s favorite pastimes. He had many favorite songs, but as his cognitive issues grew worse, it became difficult for him to recognize them. Once, near the end of his life, Virginia played There’ll Never Be Another You by the Seekers. He asked if she’d written it for him, which she obviously had not. But he thought it was lovely just the same.
With such a deep knowledge of food, it’s no wonder that John was assigned to be a cook after being drafted into the Army near the end of the Korean Conflict. He served two years with the 6th Armored Division, but was not deployed overseas.

That song surely summed up how John’s family and innumerable friends felt about him—a good man who worked hard, lived simply, never sought to outshine anyone, and savored life’s pleasures.
John treated every customer the same whether he saw them weekly or only once—a big smile, a hearty greeting, and courteous assistance that included his intimate knowledge of various types of fruits and vegetables.