Santa Clara 101

Celebrating a century—and this place: “I just saw the Mission and fell in love.”

Santa Clara 101
Goat cart: John Filippi in Hanford, California, circa 1920. View full image. Photo courtesy the Filippi family

My name is John Filippi, Class of ’38, and this November I will celebrate my 101st birthday. I was the first in my family to go to college. My parents were from Italy—my father was 3 or 4 when he came over, and my mother was born on the way, when the ship stopped off in Buenos Aires, and then she came to America.

I grew up in Hanford, California, where my parents had a small farm and fruit stand, and they went into the garbage business. They couldn’t speak English but they knew what people needed.

My uncle Pete first brought me to Santa Clara. We stopped by the Mission Church and I got out and walked right up those steps and blessed myself and went on in. Fr. Donovan saw me and gave me an application. They were looking for students. I just fell in love with the place.

I played intramural baseball, and Fr. Gianera practiced with us. I love music, and first thing I did was get in touch with the music teacher, Clemens Van Piere, and that was the beginning of the Santa Clara swing band. I could play the coronet and accordion. We played Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and the Dorsey brothers. And we played Santa Clara football games—that was the hot ticket in town.

Freshman year I was struggling with classes. Fr. Hauck tutored me, taught me how to study and take notes. He helped me succeed in my studies. Santa Clara also gave me a job. I worked as a waiter on campus. These two things allowed me to stay at Santa Clara. Not everyone could do that. Many classmates didn’t come back after Christmas that first year.

Our study hours were 7 to 9 o’clock in Varsi Hall library. Sometimes we went to the library and then out the back door. Santa Clara didn’t have girls; San Jose State did. We would catch the street car and head over to State. When we got back to school the gate was locked. Some nights we spent at the corner bar on cots. Fr. Donovan knew where we were.

From the street car once, I saw a girl who lived right off The Alameda. I saw her again on the train going to a game. That’s how Elna and I met. She was taking classes at San Jose State. We got married in 1940 and we were together 70 years. After we married, I worked for United Pacific Insurance during the day and went to law school at Golden Gate University at night. And then the war came. I joined the Army, and I was in New Guinea and the Philippines with the 743rd Anti-Aircraft Battalion. I was a master sergeant when I was discharged in ’46.

I went to work as an attorney, and I did that until 2002, when I fell and broke my hip, and Elna said, “Okay, you’ve got to retire.” We lived in San Francisco and later raised our family in Palo Alto. Of course, I could speak Italian, and growing up, learned Spanish and Portuguese. That helped in my law practice, being able to talk to clients who were new to the country. Sometimes they weren’t able to pay or at least not in cash. They would pay with what they had: ravioli, asparagus, string beans, a panettone. So that’s what we’d have for dinner.

There’s a big stone brick in front of the Mission—the stagecoach stop. When each of the kids were little we took them to the Mission and planted them on that brick. With all of the kids it stuck: Judy (Filippi) Bishop ’69Dana Filippi ’72, and Lynn (Filippi) Momboisse ’79. Dana met his wife at Santa Clara—Sharon (Kniffin) Filippi ’73—and Lynn met her husband there too—Mike Momboisse ’79. With three of the grandkids that brick stuck too: Ellie (Bishop) Dexheimer ’07Robin Momboisse ’07, and Richard Momboisse ’10. Ellie met her husband, Dan Dexheimer, when he was teaching at SCU. Richard met his wife, Melissa (Heinrich) Momboisse ’10, when they danced together performing in Thoroughly Modern Millie in Mayer Theatre at SCU. They were married last year. My grandkids call me “Nonno.”

Elna died in 2010. Last spring I took the Honor Flight—part of a group of World War II veterans were flown from California to Washington, D.C., to see the monuments. Then for my 100th birthday we had a few parties. President Michael Engh, S.J.,came to visit and that was a special honor.

What’s also nice: I’ve made it to every one of my Santa Clara reunions except for two. Like I said, I just saw the Mission and fell in love.

A grand reunion indeed—75 years since graduation, with congratulations from Chancellor WILLIAM REWAK, S.J. Photo courtesy the Filippi family

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