All through life, Peter Sammarco used his voice to help people, even when his voice box had to be removed due to cancer.
By the time his vocal cords were removed at age 48, the Rocky Point resident and teacher, who died Monday at age 88, had spearheaded construction of an orphanage in South Korea after the war, home-schooled sick children at a mental institution, and raised funds for a special needs school, his family said.
The devout Roman Catholic had quit his 19-year job as a history teacher at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School, then worked about 20 years as the groundskeeper at his local St. Anthony of Padua Church, where he nurtured a garden and people.
"One woman referred to him as the priest who couldn't speak — just very helpful, very charming and very accommodating," said his wife, Janet Sammarco of Rocky Point. The parish priest at the time lauded Sammarco as "the one who brought St. Anthony's back to life with his beautiful landscaping and people would come to see that and the church grew," she recalled.
Peter Sammarco spent his childhood during the Great Depression in Astoria. His family was fortunate because his uncle was a butcher, they said, and his mother would dispatch young Peter with platters of food to families in the neighborhood, telling him to say that she was trying out a new recipe. This sort of experience schooled him for life, his children and grandchildren said, because he remembers buying tea bags and bread for his mother with a tip earned as a youngster delivering items for his tailor father.
Shortly after being drafted into the Army the day following his graduation from Queens College, Cpl. Sammarco was dispatched to the Korean War in 1953, where he witnessed the results of armed conflict — children with no parents, food, clothes or even underwear, he told his granddaughter Christine Sammarco of East Northport for her college profile assignment seven years ago. He persuaded soldiers to build orphanages, and they did quickly. He went from troop tent to troop tent collecting money for the children, and days later, a truckload of clothes arrived. When his family sent him care packages of chocolate, Sammarco gave them to the orphans.
When he departed the country 17 months later, these children of war gave him a decorated black lacquer box, a gift that was on his dresser the day he died.
"That was one of the best times of my life because they knew I was responsible" for helping the orphans, Sammarco told his granddaughter, she recalled.
Back home, his older brother got him an insurance job, but Sammarco wanted to teach. He went back to college at Long Island University. His second week there, he was offered a job at a public high school in Brooklyn, where he taught history three years before being hired at Plainview High School.
At Plainview, Sammarco showed his support for special needs schools by working with seniors at the high school to hold a fundraising carnival, which raised $9,000, his family said. It was one of his cherished memories as a teacher, his granddaughter remembered him saying.
"Some parents in Plainview say it was the best thing that ever happened to Plainview … that all the kids did something good," he told her.
When throat cancer ended his teaching career, Sammarco stayed positive because he saw the community banding together to pray for him, his family said. “Losing my voice didn’t affect the quality of my life," he told Christine Sammarco. "I can't complain about my life. I was good to my country, I helped people grow, I’m very positive about my life."
He put his perfectionist bent to work on the grounds of his church. He resurrected the rose garden, ordered maple and flowering trees and planted impatiens, his family said.
"The trees will outlive me and people will look at them and remember me driving around on the tractor," his granddaughter quoted him as saying in her college profile.
His once-deep voice was then a whisper because he didn't replace his vocal cords with an artificial voice box but spoke by projecting air through his diaphragm. Years later, he'd get blood and kidney cancer, but it made Sammarco realize he hadn't appreciated his life enough. "OK God, I get it," he'd tell his family with a laugh.
The voice within him was still strong, like the time he counseled a temporary grounds helper to parlay his math skills into an accounting career, Christine Sammarco said.
"Years later, he came to my grandparents' house for Christmas just to thank my grandfather for making an impact on his life," she said.
Jennifer Sammarco of Rocky Point said her father valued character above all.
"If he ever told you were a solid person," his daughter said, "that was the highest compliment he could give you."
Along with his wife, daughter and granddaughter, Sammarco is also survived by a son, Peter Sammarco of Rocky Point; a brother, Richard of Sunrise, Florida; and another granddaughter, Jennifer Sammarco of Shirley.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church in Rocky Point, followed by burial at Calverton National Cemetery.