Rye Lifers is a MyRye.com series that introduces you to people that have spent their lives in Rye – people who have grown up in Rye, worked in Rye, come back to raise their family in Rye. Do you know someone we should profile for Rye Lifers? Tell us.
Today, meet Jim Dianni. Dianni will receive the 2023 Rye American Legion Americanism Award next Monday on Memorial Day during ceremonies on the Village Green.
MyRye.com: Why are you a Rye “Lifer”?
Dianni: I was born in United Hospital in Port Chester on March 12, 1950, and took the short ride to Rye a few days later, and have been here ever since. I am a third generation Rye-ite, my wife Debbie a fourth, and my grandchildren Emily and William, who live across the street from us sixth generation. I guess it’s truly home.
Tell us about the street in Rye you grew up on.
Dianni: Back in the late 1960s the New York Times ran a feature story about Grapal Street, where I grew up at #9, calling it “the perfect interracial street in the country”. I have always been extremely proud of that. Some of the families that we lived and played with were the Barnes, Chapderlaine, Pennington, McCadden, Coughlin, Carducci, Loddo, Drago, Britto, Kelly, Gedney, Chin, Turner and Wallaces. The kids from adjacent streets in the area called Limerick all played regularly on Grapal Street, and we all got along well.
Where in Rye do you live now?
Dianni: I now live in the Bradford Park section of Rye on York Avenue. Debbie and I bought our house in 1979 from her dad, City of Rye Police Chief William Hagele, and wouldn’t think of living anywhere else! We have raised our three daughters here, and we love this street and our neighbors much the same way as I do Grapal Street.
Who was your favorite teacher at Rye High School and what year did you graduate?
Dianni: I had two favorite teachers at Rye High School. My favorite female teacher was Mrs. Ruth Singleton, my Biology teacher, who passed away just last month at 93 years old. She was a wonderful teacher and great woman, who appreciated humor in her class, but not the disruptive kind.
My favorite male teacher was the legendary Mardsen V. Dillenbeck, who came to Rye after teaching at Hamilton College. I had him for senior English in 67-68. He was a mesmerizing speaker as well as a brilliant man. He also was the stadium announcer for Garnet football games, and was a big thrill to hear him call your name over the PA system. He never signed yearbooks.
He had a stamp with red ink, and you either got an A or an F based on your performance in his class. He stamped me with both saying he couldn’t make up his mind about me.
Where did you work in Rye and what do you do?
Dianni: On 1/1/73 I started working at the Rye Fire Department and retired on 3/31/2012. I spent my first thirteen years working at the Milton Firehouse while attending college and attaining an AAS degree in Fire Science. In 1986, upon the retirement of my former Grapal Street neighbor Daniel Coughlin, I was promoted to become fire inspector.
Because NYS civil service law changed requiring that position to have an officers designation, I was eventually promoted to the rank of lieutenant making me the first career officer in Rye FD history. I was responsible for supervising the career staff, fire cause and origin determination, and public education (that I often conducted with my old sidekick Sparky the fire dog).
I have a long history of attending Rye Garnets football games. I have only missed a handful between the late 1950s and the Covid epidemic.
Consequently I got a call from Steve Moynihan, the president of the football booster club asking me to do “color” at the 1992 state championship. When I got to Syracuse, much to my dismay, I was doing play by play with Mark Morell, a former Harrison Husky of all things.
This led to me doing all the home and away games for the next fourteen years including six NYS championship games on RCTV doing both play by play and color. I tell my friends that they found the only guy in town who could talk to himself for 2 1/2 hours and keep himself totally amused.
What in your view are the two or three greatest Rye traditions — current or past?
- What else? The Rye – Harrison football game. The 100th edition is coming up next year.
- William H. Balls Memorial Field Day. This was the annual Rye Olympics held on Labor Day at Rye Rec. There were races and competitions for all ages from young to old. $5 gift certificates were awarded to winners, $3 for second and $2 for third. There were sack races, potato races, pillow fights, golf chipping and running events. There were free hot dogs, ice cream and orange drink for the hundreds that would attend. The highlight was shimmying up the grease poll. In my day the winner was usually Grapal Street’s own Ronnie Carducci. The prize was a 5 pound ham.
- Midnight Mass was an event with color and pageantry that also doesn’t exist anymore. It was so popular at one time that you had to get a pass well ahead of time in order to gain entry. All the Rye bars and restaurants were very festive afterwards when all the churches emptied after midnight services. Now everyone is in bed waiting for Santa.
What about the great Rye institutions — community organizations, shops, restaurants. Which ones are or have been part of the Rye fabric?
- Kelly’s Sea Level. I could fall out my bed on Grapal Street and land on a bar stool. Until 1976 it was named the 5 Points Tavern. It was owned by Wally Signer, a former big league pitcher. There was very little food served until it was purchased by Martha and Jerry McGuire, who transformed it into the best bar food restaurant in Westchester County. Wally also owned The Dugout on Purdy Avenue. The $64,000 question has always been why was the bar called the Five Points – because five streets come together there or because home plate has five corners (because Signer was a major league pitcher)?
- Pelly’s (most recently la Pantierre and now Ocean Prime) was a family owned business that was owned by the Pell family for many years, then the Mc Michael family. My dad was in the restaurant business for his entire life, and he took us there on his night off. I still crave the boneless chicken.
- Belluscio’s. Until the early 1960s there were no actual pizzerias in town. We didn’t eat meat on Fridays and my mother made some God awful casserole with tuna fish in it. She would usually let me get a pizza from Belluscio’s. She would give me $2, and I would walk down to pick up the pizza (65 cents), stop at DelVals store on Midland Avenue and get her a pack of pall malls (35 cents) and a quart of soda for 19 cents. As soon as walked in the door she would stick her hand out and ask for the change. Oh the good old days!
This was a good one! Jim is a great story teller!