“If it weren’t for some of these people, we could be talking to each other in German right now,” says Kathleen Cefalo, co-owner of Cefalo’s Banquet & Event Center in Carnegie, as she prepared to host an enormous group of veterans, many of whom served during World War II, for lunch yesterday afternoon.
Two hundred veterans and Rosie the Riveters from 21 states boarded 10 charter coaches in Beloit, Wisconsin, on Sunday and set off on a four-day journey to visit the memorials in Washington D.C. The trip is organized annually by VetsRoll, an Illinois-based nonprofit dedicated to planning this event for veterans who served up to the year 1963.
The event is no small undertaking—the veterans are accompanied by more than 140 volunteer assistants, dozens of medical volunteers, drivers, VetsRoll staff and media, and the entire trip, including hotel stays, entertainment and meals are completely free for the veterans and Rosies. Of course, they need to make some stops on their way from Wisconsin to Washington, and they organized to stop at Cefalo’s Banquet & Event Center in Carnegie on their way through Pittsburgh.
“When Mark Finnegan [co-founder of VetsRoll] approached us, he asked if we could accommodate 361 people for lunch. And to be honest, no, we can’t,” says Leonard Cefalo, who served six years in the reserves. “But then my son Dean [the chef] said, ‘Dad, is there any way we can make this work for them? I want to do this. Whatever it takes, we should make this happen.’”
The Cefalos, who live on Orchard Drive, bought the former Christ United Presbyterian Church in Carnegie in 2004 and opened Cefalo’s restaurant. But about eight years ago, they decided to change their business model and it became an event venue for weddings, fundraisers, concerts, private parties and other events. They estimate that 250 is the maximum number of guests they have hosted in their venue at any given time.
Yesterday, they hosted 361 through a combination of creative seating arrangements, a set buffet menu, a staff supplemented by patriotic volunteers and sheer willpower.
“We figured out a way to make it work,” says Dean, “Is it easy? No. But it’s not impossible. We are simply doing the best we can to make this the most enjoyable lunch they have had in a long time.
“We also want this to be as exciting as possible … We are shooting for a Pittsburgh welcome like none they’ve seen before,” says Leonard. “We are friendly here in Pittsburgh. We want them to know that we care.”
When the Cefalos agreed to host the event a month ago, they immediately began making calls to to try to organize a “Pittsburgh welcome,” and the results did not disappoint. The Carnegie Police Department blocked off Lydia Street and escorted the 10 coach buses off the parkway, where hundreds of South Hills residents and children from Carnegie Elementary School lined the street, waving flags and cheering as the buses approached the venue. Then, as the veterans got off their busses they were greeted by the honor guard from the Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station, Carnegie mayor Jack Kobistek and enthusiastic residents, who shook the veterans’ hands and thanked them for their service.
“The guys in my bus were in tears. It was amazing,” says Karen Short, a VetsRoll volunteer and assistant supervisor for the event from Illinois.
“We are so impressed by this town. The welcome we received was great, and it proves that small-town America is not dead,” says Norman Schreiner, another VetsRoll volunteer who is also a Vietnam veteran. Like Schreiner, many of the volunteers for the VetsRoll trip are either active service or veterans themselves who served after 1963.
As the veterans began filling the venue, the Cefalos had their hands full. Dean was busy cooking hundreds of meals with a very small kitchen staff, Leonard was shaking hands and showing guests to their seats, and Kathleen appeared to be in multiple locations at once, washing dishes, running drinks, greeting the guests and helping out wherever she was needed.
Lilly Gosda from Jamesville, Wisconsin, who was absolutely delighted by the welcome in Carnegie and the food at Cefalo’s, was a Rosie the Riveter, though she feels uncomfortable claiming the title. “I was a stay-at-home mom, with two kids under the age of three in the house. I had no car, and no phone, and I had to push them around in their stroller any time I wanted to go anywhere. So I collected lard. I would collect it in empty coffee cans and take it to a drop box [to be used in bombs]. I did my part, but I wish I could have done more.”
Sully Sullivan, from Rockford, Illinois, was also among the guests. Sullivan is a retired math/science teacher and principal who served in the Navy in the years leading up to the Korean War. “The service is so important because you are protecting your country,” says Sullivan. “You are keeping our enemies away from the people they would try to control. The holocaust is probably the worst example of this, and today we have ISIS. But when you serve, you are doing your part to prevent it.”
“I really respect our veterans, and I think it is important to thank them in any way we can for what they have done for us,” says Gage Siwicki, an 18-year-old VetsRoll volunteer from Rockton, Illinois, who is leaving for basic training in the Air Force on July 19. He graduates high school on Saturday but is spending this week making sure the VetsRoll veterans have a comfortable, enjoyable trip to Washington.
After lunch, the Cefalos had some cleaning up to do before going home to pack for vacation. They had a vacation planned to go out west and see national parks and the Grand Canyon, but they decided to delay it for a week so that they could be there to host the VetsRoll convoy.
This year marks the seventh annual VetsRoll trip to Washington, which is always scheduled for the week leading up to Memorial Day. After leaving Cefalo’s the convoy moved on to Chantilly, Virginia, to stay the night. Today, they are spending the entire day visiting the war memorials in Washington, where they can look for the names of their fallen comrades and hopefully find some closure.
“My dad was in the Navy,” says Kathleen. “When many of these veterans came back, they accepted the laud of the people and then they put that whole part of their life away … they put their medals in drawers. All of them were part of a team, and lot of their friends didn’t come back with them. They felt that what they did was an honor, not an imposition, and I often hear veterans say that the real heroes are the people not with them right now.”
Mt. Lebanon Memorial Day Activities:
The South Hills Memorial Day Association’s parade, Monday, May 30, starts on Brookline Boulevard at 10 a.m. and reaches Mt. Lebanon just before 11. The parade ends at Mt. Lebanon cemetery, where a memorial ceremony follows. The parade is led by the Mt. Lebanon Police Color guard and includes marching bands, fire trucks, Scout troops, twirlers and dance troupes. On Memorial Day evening at 7 p.m., there will be a ceremony at the Mt. Lebanon Veterans Memorial at the entrance to Mt. Lebanon Park.