“The Great Zarconē”

By Anthony Kovatch, M.D., Pediatric Alliance — Arcadia Division


(Although they occurred 50 years ago in another place and time, the events of this story are 100% accurate; there are certain memories that even the most cynical of minds cannot alter.)


(Music accompaniment: “That Happy Feeling” composed by Bert Kaempfert and sung by Herb Oscar Anderson)



In June of 1965, the country was still reeling in disbelief from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Especially the Catholic families of Passaic, New Jersey (located in the northeastern “armpit” of the Garden State) who sent their children to the local Italian parochial school, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, so that they would not be excommunicated or, worse yet, some day go to hell. While the graduating eighth grade girls were busy worshipping the Beatles and the lesser “invaders” from Britain, and most of the boys were playing basketball for the diocese or learning the art of shoplifting from their older brothers, some of us about to graduate were in desperate search of a hero. Especially, those who stank at sports and were of low self-esteem. Especially those who were chronically anxious and, in the yearbook, should have been voted “most likely to succeed… at having a nervous breakdown.” Especially those in single parent families. Especially me.

So when my longtime New York Yankee baseball hero Mickey Mantle (“The Mick”) retired, or rather, continued his headlong decline into alcoholism, there was nothing left short of surviving the Cold War. And surviving the cold war within myself — the jealousy, the longing for I knew not what, the fear of coming of age. On reading the great American novel by F. Scotty Fitzgerald, I was shocked that “The Great Gatsby” was not a great philanthropist but a spoiled philanderer pursuing another man’s wife.

The best part of every day was waking up to the radio — to the husky voice of Herb Oscar Anderson singing “That Happy Feeling.” This was followed by my devoted father’s entreaty to wake up and get ready for school. The rest of the day might go downhill from there as my anxiety mounted.

The saving grace of my adolescent angst was that it made me afraid to fail. So much so that I was one of the two top students graduating from Mount Carmel School that June. On the Sunday of graduation, the so-called valedictorian would be awarded a Polaroid color camera (remember, it was 1965). I was in the running. However, another student was in the way — the formidable Rita Zarcone — my long-time nemesis.

Most of the eight grade students hated Rita because they, too, were jealous of her. She was indeed a model Catholic school pupil: intelligent, industrious, faultless, cherished by all the nuns. Her vocabulary and abstract thinking were far in advance of the rest of us. I particularly avoided her because she was ebullient and outgoing. She would dance the “mashed potato” in public. She had no compunction about singing and dancing on the elementary school stage. Once, after she performed “My Girl Lollypop” at a school talent show (to the dismay of us all), I remarked out loud: “That was really stupid.” She strolled over to me pleading her case: “So, Anthony, what is so stupid about making little kids laugh?” I was at a loss for words.

When Sunday came, my usual angst had progressed to a state of panic. I cared little about the Polaroid camera or about the recognition — far, far more was at stake. My mother, whether from her rapidly progressive dementia, or from some epiphany from the Powers-That-Be, kept proclaiming to me and to anyone who would listen that I was the winner. All she could cry out was “Anthony will win — Anthony will win!” to my consternation and embarrassment. The pressure was intense; I knew I did not deserve to win — Rita did.

That day, Fate was kind to me — or, rather, to my mother and father. I was spared great embarrassment, at least until the aftermath in the classroom when all the graduates bid each other our last farewell. As the handshakes and hugs dissipated, the Great Rita Zarcone quietly walked over to me and remarked with the solemness and sincerity of a saint: “Congratulations, Anthony, on winning the award.” Disarmed to the point where I was rendered devoid of emotion, I mumbled back: “Thank you, Rita.”

If I had known at the time what the future held for us, I would have exclaimed: “This is stupid, YOU are the winner, the camera is yours!” And I don’t think this time she would have argued with me.

Time passed and, of course, she was at the top of her high school class. We both made Mount Carmel School proud. Until 2 years later when we all got the message that Rita had died. It was malignant breast cancer. My immediate reaction was to try to inform the world of her personal congratulation to me of which no one else was aware — the gesture of grace and dignity unbecoming of a 14-year-old. I nervously wrote out and submitted a letter to the local New Jersey newspaper, the Herald News. I remember starting the article: “Sometimes simple things happen to simple people that the world has to know about….” The editors thought differently: they neither published nor even acknowledged receipt of my letter. Maybe because it was hand-written, they just trashed it as some customer complaint. Or maybe the revelation would just have to wait until now.

For 50 years, every recollection of that Sunday made me more and more convinced that the glory of that day should have been Rita’s. It has taken me 50 years to finally realize that it truly was. I am convinced the dear nuns gave the award not to me, but to my ailing mother.  And because of her lofty aspirations and other-worldy perspectives on life, the award really did mean absolutely nothing to Rita at that time.

I think she knew the whole irony.  I think she was enabled by some strange power to look into my soul.  I think she knew that I was the one who was desperately in need of a hero — and that, over the long haul, I would not let her die in vain.


(Our Lady of Mount Carmel Elementary School—as it was in 1965, is now, and perhaps ever shall be.)