Enduring Friendships: The Hardware Heaven crew
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
Some friendships last beyond a generation and become a legacy. That the case with five Occidental men whose friendship shaped the town and, long after they have passed on, still binds their children.
Louis, Willie and Dan “Mahoney” Gonnella were cousins, but more than that they were close friends. Frank Morelli and Dario Montafi were their cohorts, sharing boyhood and adulthood in Occidental.
The only time they were separated was when four went overseas to fight in World War II. Willie was older than the rest and had health problems, so the Army wouldn’t take him. He held the town together until the others returned.
As young men in the late 1930s, they formed a baseball team and enjoyed being “boys of summer” until World War II put an end to such innocent fun. They returned around the same time and joined the American Legion and soon reformed the ball team.
Willie couldn’t play but was a loyal fan. Joe Lunardi, younger than the others, remembers them and the team well.
“We called those guys ‘the Bench Crew’ because they met every day at the hardware store bench,” said Lunardi. “I wasn’t part of them but looked up to them.
“Our team was actually semi-pro, and we played teams from as far away as San Francisco. We were all Italian except for Charlie Kelly, who was Irish. Our real name was Occidental American Legion Post 651, but we got the joke nickname, ‘Fighting Irish.’”
Louis owned the town hardware store, Mahoney the Union Hotel. Willie was a bit slow, never married or had a family. “But he was a hard worker, and he could eat more than any other human being I ever met,” recalled Tom “Snap” Gonnella, Louis’ son.
“Willie was sort of a mascot for the others. My Dad always had him over for Sunday supper.”
“Once when they were all making wreaths, Mahoney had brought a dozen sandwiches for lunch. We found that Willie had eaten them all,” recalled Johnny Gonnella, another of Louis’ sons.
Willie was much beloved in Occidental. Like the later town character Ranger Rick, Willie kept the town swept and neat. He rode a handed down bicycle wearing his signature straw hat, carrying in the basket the accordion he played on Sundays in front of the Union Hotel.
In a 1979 interview shortly before his death, Willie explained how he and his friends made it through the dark days of the Great Depression.
“We used to make Christmas wreaths in season,” he said. “We collected wood rats’ nests from the redwood forests and sold them to orchid growers in San Francisco because they were the best stuff for orchids. We used to slice thin slices of redwood burl from trees and sell it to furniture makers in Belgium.” he said.
As adults, the men met on the hardware store’s porch to figure out what the town needed. They volunteered for the Fire Department and served on the Community Services District board, which oversaw the town water supply and its sewage.
“They gave and they gave and they gave, and they never asked for anything back, not even a thank you,” said Johnny.
The five men decided to lay the town’s water lines. They didn’t get county permission, knowing it would take too long and the town needed its new supply right away. Later, the county decided the men probably did a better job than it could have done, and officials said nothing.
“They were the law west of Highway 116,” laughed Snap. “During the Hippie era when I grew a beard, Frank drove me crazy because he nicknamed me Castro.”
Danny Gonnella, Mahoney’s son, recalled their friendship and dedication. “They started the annual firemen’s barbecue,” he said. “They did it all with Joe Lunardi to help out.”
The annual fundraiser supplied the town with firefighting equipment.
“We used to hold the community services meetings,” said Johnny. “They would last 10 minutes. They would just tell us what we had to do and that was it. We did what they said. There were no committees. Then they’d sit down to eat salami and drink red wine at the Union.”
Like Willie, Frank never married or had children, but the other men’s children have always been close. Mahoney’s late son Mark golf with the others on a regular basis. Johnny recently celebrated his 60th birthday, and Darwin Montafi, Dario’s son, joined the others to celebrate.
The friendship was so close that after Louis died and his children missed him, Snap commissioned a muralist to paint “Hardware Heaven.” a mural of his father and Willie sitting on the hardware store bench where the men used to gather. After Mahoney died, Snap got permission from the family to add him to the mural, also adding Dario and Frank.
The mural took a beating over the years and is being reconstructed. In due time it will once again adorn the walls of Occidental Hardware, a testament to the enduring friendship that has become a town legend.