SOUTH PORTLAND — For the four DiPietro children, the convenience store that their father, Santo “Sam” DiPietro, started in 1972 is like another member of the family.
So many of their experiences as kids, adolescents and as adults stem from DiPietro’s Market at 385 Cottage Road, the youngest, Sam, said Tuesday.
Those memories will always be irrevocably tied to their father, who died Sunday at 81 after a lifetime of serving his neighborhood, his community and his state. The well-known and much-loved local grocer and volunteer died at home, from complications of diabetes and heart disease.
Jean, one of DiPietro’s two daughters, this week remembered how, when she was in high school and wanted to go out on a weekend night, her parents wouldn’t say be home by a certain time, but “be home before the store closes.”
There was always dishwashing to be done at the store, or something else that needed to be tended to, even after a night out.
“The store was the other child,” Jean said fondly on Tuesday.
Sam and Jean looked through pictures of their dad earlier this week, while preparing for DiPietro’s wake and funeral.
“He was the smallest of his three brothers, see?” Sam said as he held a picture of his dad and his two uncles, Carmine and Joe.
But DiPietro had enormous stature in the community. Patrons and well-wishers stopped in the store periodically to hug and share memories, or to drop off flowers and cards. The marquee on the outside of the store read, “Out of respect for our father we will be closed Friday.”
DiPietro was known by a variety of nicknames, including Big S, Little Sam, and Cigar Sammy – because he “always had a cigar in his mouth,” Sam said.
He grew up on Portland’s Munjoy Hill, the neighborhood where his parents settled after they emigrated from Lettomanoppello, Italy. In the early 1940s, they opened DiPietro’s Italian Sandwiches on Cumberland Avenue, where it operated for the next 69 years until 2011.
When DiPietro and his wife, Helen, were married in 1955, they moved to South Portland and raised four children, who included Micheal and Susan in addition to Jean and Sam, and eventually opened their own DiPietro’s Market in the early 1970s.
DiPietro’s sells groceries and prepared food – most notably “Italian” sandwiches and pizza – along with salads and pasta.
Not only a likeable businessman and well-known resident, DiPietro was civic-minded and cared deeply about his community, his kids said. A passionate Democrat, DiPietro mingled with politicians at both the local and national level, and always looked out for people, Jean and Sam said.
As the family rummaged through items on Wednesday afternoon to display for the funeral, Jean said she found pictures of her father with Walter Mondale, John Glenn and Jimmy Carter, who stopped in the market to say hello before he became president, she said.
DiPietro became involved in government when he served for nine years as a city councilor and mayor, and then for four terms as a state legislator from 1989 to 1996.
Mayor Tom Blake said he met DiPietro when Blake coached DiPietro’s son Sam on the Mahoney Middle School track team.
Years later, in 1986, when Blake lived in Ferry Village, he lobbied then-Mayor DiPietro to start a city-led effort to form a land trust and Conservation Commission.
DiPietro helped establish the first Conservation Commission, as well as the first ad hoc committee to form a Greenbelt Walkway through the city, Blake recalled Thursday morning.
“Basically, I saw Sam’s creation of the Greenbelt Committee as the first real reason why we have the Greenbelt today,” Blake said. “Sam was a very giving person. (The DiPietros) were and still are icons in this community.”
From a young age, it was evident to DiPietro’s children just how involved their father was in the community. It started by simply observing how thoughtfully he interacted with customers, Sam said, “no matter if it was a little kid or an elderly woman who needed a loaf of bread for the week.”
Jean recalled, “I can’t tell you how many nights he’d have an extra sandwich” around closing time, and say to a kid that he coached in Little League or just lived in the neighborhood who happened to be walking by, ‘Hey, have you eaten?'”
He did the same thing for plow drivers in winter, Jean said, remembering how her dad would leave a light on in the store and have hot meatball sandwiches ready to hand over.
Anthony Berlucchi, who now lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, grew up around the corner from the DiPietro family, and has continued to stay in close touch with the family.
“They were like a second family to me,” he said Wednesday, while working in the store, something he does once a month. “He helped me out a lot growing up.”
“Everything stems from the store,” Sam agreed.
From waking up early and stopping to fill the ice machines before school, to going out late at night to buy food to sell from larger grocery stores, most of Sam’s memories can be traced back to the store and, by extension, his dad.
Sam said his father was particularly proud of co-founding the South Portland Boys and Girls Club in the mid 1970s – an organization that had been very influential for DiPietro as a young boy in Portland, Sam said.
Before he died, the club made DiPietro a life member, Sam recalled, as he started to cry.
“I’m sorry,” he said, wiping his eyes. “It’s the weird, little things. Even if I live to be a thousand, I couldn’t pay him back for everything he’s done for me.”
Sam DiPietro, the youngest of Santo “Sam” DiPietro’s children, holds a picture of himself as a teenager, working with his father. Santo died Sunday, Oct. 9, at 81, leaving a legacy as a loving family man, well-known businessman, civil servant, and devoted community member.
Photos of Santo “Sam” DiPietro scattered in the back room at DiPietro’s Market in South Portland on Wednesday, Oct. 12. DiPietro died Oct. 9; a Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated Friday, Oct. 14, at 11 a.m. at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, 72 Federal St., Portland. Interment will be private.