Is there an Amarilis in your neighborhood?
Having seen each "Godfather" movie at least twenty times, I can recite most of the lines by memory. It was the images of the camera, though, that seared a lasting memory in my mind - those powerful images from the mind of Falmouthite Gordon Willis, the cinematographer from Falmouth who will get his well-deserved recognition as a legendary artist when he receives an honorary Academy Award next month. As I pored over last week's account of his successes in the Enterprise and pondered how fortunate we are to have such a legend in Falmouth, I paused to contemplate how truly propitious Falmouth is to actually have gifted, accomplished, and interesting people in virtually every neighborhood. From Olympic Champions (Colleen Coyne), to rock stars (one of my FHS classmates used to baby-sit for the Cars' Rick Ocasek in Sippewissett), to best selling authors sprinkled from Waquoit to Megansett (my favorite is Ted Murphy of Belltown fame), we live in a community where living next to extraordinary people is commonplace - and not all of them are famous.
Take for example, the extraordinary person living next to me. Born Amarilis dos Santos Melo Bandeira nearly 80 years ago in the small northern Portuguese village of Castenheira on the outskirts of the city of Chaves, Mike Mello has led a fascinating and exceptional life. His time in Falmouth as the Foreign Language Department Head at Falmouth High School was actually the culmination of a journey that spanned more than forty years of fighting for democracy and making a difference in the lives of others.
His family came to the United States from Portugal in the late 1930's when Mike was a young boy. His father came for the plentiful employment as America was preparing for the next great war, along with sister Gilcelina and brother Abel. Life in this strange concrete jungle of the new world was made more difficult, as Mike's mother had passed years before, leaving the family without the warmth and doting each child cherishes, no matter where your life's journey began.
As the family adjusted to American life, Mike developed an affinity for his adopted language of English. To this day, this budding octogenarian, whose native tongue is not the English he so eloquently uses, has a flawless command of four languages. Years passed, and this dual citizen of both Portugal and the U.S. had to fulfill the obligation of every Portuguese man and traveled back to his homeland to serve in the Army. His stay was almost permanent, as service for a foreign army would most surely sacrifice his status as an American citizen. Through sheer determination, will, wit, grit, and passion, he managed to keep his citizenship in his adopted nation, the beneficiary of his own tireless letter writing and lobbying with the U.S. Embassy in Lisbon. After a successful discharge, he stayed in Europe and, using the skills learned during his military service on a democracy-starved post-war continent, he worked determinedly for Radio Free Europe, helping beam the message of freedom and liberty across the Iron Curtain. When President Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall in 1987 and implored Mikhail Gorbachev to tear it down, it had already been punctured, radio wave by radio wave, by people like Mike Mello. Years later, scholars credited the efforts of Radio Free Europe as playing an early role in that epic event.
After his work spreading western democracy, Mike's fondness for the U.S. beckoned, though, and he journeyed to New York to begin his own American dream. Within a few years, he managed to begin a higher education, a marriage, and fatherhood, finding both his future alma mater (Fordham) and his future wife (Judy) in the Bronx. Working for Academic Press, an educational publishing company in Manhattan, Mike managed to assimilate well in Gotham; he still speaks of his prized personal parking space in that crowded business mecca.
He realized, though, that traveling into New York City was not a daily grind he desired, so he found employment in a faraway unknown hamlet in Massachusetts. Mike, Judy, and now daughters Jane and Barbara, came to Falmouth to yet again write a new chapter in 1973. His Master's not yet complete, Mike commuted in his trusty Dodge station wagon back to Fordham in the Bronx to complete his education - all the while shaping young Falmouth minds at FHS. His love of his Portuguese culture still strong, he joined with many immigrants in forming the Falmouth Portuguese American Association, today one of Falmouth's most vibrant cultural organizations.
His story is not yet complete. Mike has since retired, his daughters grown and wife still by his side. He now enjoys quieter days, with memories and stories of his New York and European adventures fading. Occasionally, though, that twinkle reappears, and he is glad to share the stories of a young freedom fighter, shooting his radio missiles to the oppressed people of Eastern Europe.
So, as you read this, think of who in your neighborhood can share a similar story of struggle and triumph to enrich your family. We offer excuses these days about our busy lives traveling to soccer games and Wal-Mart to justify how little many of us get to know our neighbors. Take a walk down your street. I bet there is a Gordon Willis or Amarilis dos Santos Melo Bandeira just waiting to share an extraordinary life with you.
This column is reprinted from the Falmouth Enterprise.