THE ADVOCATE ASKS: “Retired” educator Carmine Moschella, Jr. teaches “dying art” of woodworking in SHS shop where his career began
Editor’s Note: For this week, we sat down with Carmine C. Moschella, Jr., a retired Saugus educator who continues a second teaching career – pro bono. He’s been working as a volunteer instructor in the woodworking shop at the back of Saugus High School, where he has been presiding over small groups of Saugus Senior Citizens for the past 23 years. On most Tuesdays, from 10 a.m. to noon, Moschella, 89, meets with a class of about 15 seniors who are interested in learning about furniture refinishing, repairing and the art of chair caning. Students can bring in something that needs to be repaired, and Moschella takes pride in fixing things for them or letting his students fix and repair their furniture or other articles under his supervision. Moschella, a Revere native, is a 1946 graduate of Revere High School. He worked 37 years in Saugus Public Schools (1956-1993). He began as a wood shop teacher, rose to the position of Department Head and became a Vice Principal of the high school in 1971 – a position he held until retirement. He also served as shopkeeper, director of the shop, audiovisual director and as an advisor to several clubs. He is a Korean War veteran, having served in the U.S. Army, and was honorably discharged as a corporal in 1953. Moschella married his high school sweetheart, Audria Burnell, in 1951. They had two daughters, Mila and Carla Moschella, who still live in Saugus. The couple had been married for 56 years when Mrs. Moschella died in 2007.
After graduating from high school, Moschella got his start in woodworking at Joseph Gerte Co. on Albany Street in Boston. He got to work there for five years, learning the craft of custom furniture making, before the Army drafted him at the start of the Korean War.
Moschella is a 1956 graduate of Fitchburg State College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Arts. In 1961, he earned a master’s degree from Salem State College in Educational Guidance. He has been active in local government for nearly three decades, having served on the Saugus Council on Aging for 27 years. He is a former Town Meeting member (20 years) and has served on various committees and boards, including two terms on the School Committee (1993-97). He served as committee chair for his last term, having topped the ticket in the 1995 election by 800 votes.
But he is best known around town as an accomplished craftsman who has the talent to turn a piece of wood that might be destined for the trash heap into somebody’s treasure. He has put his artisan skills to work on countless community service projects. With his extraordinary talent as a woodworker, furniture maker, refinisher and cabinet maker, he has donated many woodworking projects to the Town of Saugus. Some of his best pieces are on display near or inside municipal buildings – including Town Hall, the Saugus Public Library, the Saugus Senior Center and the historic Roby School building that houses Saugus Public Schools. The most familiar works he produced and donated to the town are the Board of Selectmen’s three-piece conference table and the handicapped-accessible lectern used for their meetings, both in the second floor auditorium at Town Hall.
In 2004, Moschella received the “Man of the Year Award” at the town’s annual Founders Day celebration, being recognized for his countless contributions to the town – for thousands of volunteer work hours and his many gifts of woodworking. Some highlights of the interview follow.
Q: Carmine, tell me a little bit about yourself, about how you continue to teach woodworking for free even though you retired years ago.
A: I retired from Saugus High School as the vice principal back in 1993.
Q: But you’re still around.
A: I’ve been here since 1956, and I just continue to be here. When I came here, I was 26 years old. And now I’m 89 years old and I’m still here.
Q: So you’re “retired,” but you’re not really “retired.”
A: Well, I’m kind of semiretired, and I still do a lot of things on the outside above and beyond this [teaching seniors] as well.
Q: So, all of this pro bono work, you’re teaching people woodworking?
A: I’m teaching mostly the woodworking, but the class we sponsor mostly for woodworking, which includes finishing, furniture repairing, caning chairs – things of that nature. The only thing I don’t do is to allow the people that come here to use any of the power machines. If it [the project] has to have power machines, I do that section for them and pass it on – and they go from there, because I’m always leary of power machines. And most of them [the students] have no real experience in the uses of them [power machines], so I’m just very careful.
Q: So you arrived here in Saugus … Please tell me how that happened.
A: Well, I came here when I graduated from Fitchburg State, and I was interviewed. At that time, I guess they were recruiting different people for different positions from within the town. So I was recruited and they hired me.
Q: And then you moved to Saugus?
A: I was still in Revere at that time. And I moved to Saugus in 1961, and I have been in Saugus ever since, but I also have a place in Maine. We spend a lot of our time in Maine on a lake in the summertime. We used to do it all year round, but since I lost my wife, we only go up when the weather is good.
Q: Is that Sebago Lake?
A: No, I’m on Lake Balch. It’s in West Newfield, Maine, which is just outside of Sanford, Maine.
Q: Okay. Let’s talk about your work. What’s the most favorite of all of the pieces you’ve produced for the town? The pieces of woodworking that you’ve done?
A: Well, the most famous one is probably the big one that is in front of the Town Hall that holds the memorial to the World War I people. I made that way back, I forget when. When you first came in here and saw the big Indian … I did that back in ’84. And if you go into the Town Hall, I did the Selectmen’s bench, where the selectmen meet, and I did the curios – when you go into Town Hall – on either side of the wall. They look like display cases. Actually, they are curios. I did those way back when. I’ve made signs for the Waybright School, and I did the bulletin board for the Oaklandvale School.
Q: How many students do you have in a given week?
A: On the class for the elderly, senior citizens?
A: If they all come right now, there would be 14 or15 of them on the record as being members of the class.
Q: So when you do that instruction, there is no fees for these people? It’s all pro bono work by you?
A: When it comes to doing the senior class, I do $20 to supply the materials, and I supply the materials as much as I can. But when I do it for the town, they supply all of the materials and I provide the labor, and I have been doing that since 1956, so I’ve never billed the town anything I’ve ever done for the town.
Q: So you have put a lot of pro bono hours in for the town over the years?
A: Oh yeah – a lot of things that I’ve made – oh yes. If you want, I can name a lot of the other pieces. If you go into the town library, you find all kinds of things in there that I did: display cases, fancy shelving, parts where the young kids have a section. I’ve made a lot of things down there for them. I’ve made these big hutches to store things.
Q: How did you get involved with woodwork? Did it start in college or when you were young?
A: Actually, the way I really got involved when I graduated from high school – I didn’t know where I was going to go, and as I said, I went to Boston Trade at night as a woodworker, and I was fortunate that they placed me in a factory for making real custom furniture. And I was there until I got drafted into the Army, and then when I got out of the Army, it was a case of “I want to keep on with the furniture.” And I heard from the family, “You got to go to college now, you’ve got the GI Bill.”
Q: Well, you made the most of it.
A: I made the most of it. I took advantage of the GI Bill. Yeah.
Q: So it didn’t cost your folks anything.
A: Well, I think I had to pay $50 a semester, above and beyond what the government took care of, for going as a GI.
Q: Well, that’s still a lot less expensive than what you would have to pay.
A: I was paying $50 and I commuted from Revere to Fitchburg every day, and while I was commuting, I was working in a bowling alley as a cashier. And sometimes I wouldn’t get out of there [the bowling alley] until one or two in the morning, and I had to be in Fitchburg at eight (a.m.), so I would leave the bowling alley, go home and change and head for Fitchburg. I paid my dues, I think.
Q: So before going into the service, were you artistically inclined?
A: Yeah. I was always with my grandfather, trying to do something with him, and that was my attraction. He used to love to garden, and I would garden. He used to love to do small things in woodworking and things of that nature. I spent more time with him than probably any of my adult people [relatives and family]. That was my father’s father. They lived in Revere.
Q: What did he do? His occupation?
A: He was a policeman.
Q: And, on the side, he was into woodworking?
A: Yeah, but he wasn’t really into it for anything but his own pleasure, I think, because he didn’t make things for other people. He might fix this for somebody, that kind of thing, but he wasn’t really into it. With me, when I got older, it was a little different: I was doing things for people.
Q: People say you can take a piece of wood and make something very artistic out of it.
A: What I do tell people – “Tell me how long you want it and how wide you want it and leave the rest to me.” That’s what I tell the people when they want something done. And it has always worked out because I’m always looking to do something accurate, but not competitive to what somebody in the past has already done. I redesign it to the likings of everybody, including myself. And if you go around town, my signature is a little round hole that I make with plug cutters. If you go around to places where I made things, you will see a hole that I made on that project, and that’s my signature, and most people know that.
Q: Plug cutters?
A: When you drill a hole and fill it with a plug – so you screw something in and put the plug behind it to cover the screw. Those chairs [pointing at some chairs in the workshop] have plugs. I just got through fixing those for two people in the class. The arms were broken. That one [chair] over there was upholstered. I took the upholstery out and put the caning in. That one down there had the uprights broken. I got all of those fixed. I do what I think the average person cannot do. But what they can do, I want them to do it.
Q: So for you this is …
A: This is my hobby.
Q: A labor of love?
A: Oh, definitely. Definitely. And the town has been great to let us use the facilities. As I said, I have the class time, and as you just saw, there were two of them [students] here this morning.
Q: So some senior citizens who have old chairs that they want fixed, they can bring them in here as part of their class work? They can have them fixed?
A: They bring in what they want. Most all of them don’t do something for somebody else. They usually bring in something that they have that they want fixed. And I can go from soup to nuts on it to fix it. No matter what it is, I’ll fix it. And if I have to match colors, I know how to match all of the different colors so you couldn’t even tell if I had to put a patch in.
Q: Do you have them work on homework related to the project?
A: I kind of tease them a little by telling them “If you did this at home for an hour, next time you come you would be pretty close to finishing.” Some of them do take it home, but most of them leave it. We have a little back room down there where they can store it rather than taking it back and forth, back and forth all of the time.
Q: Like the woman who was here a few minutes ago?
A: She’s from Lynn.
Q: Apparently, she’s working on some project, and you’re her teacher.
A: Yeah. I’ll be here if they need me in the morning. But most times when I’m here in the morning, it’s because I’m doing something for the town.
Q: Now, did she get connected with you through the Saugus Senior Center?
A: That’s how she knew about it because she read about it in the bulletin. I don’t know if she read it or her husband read it in one of the bulletins they put out.
Q: How many seniors have taken advantage of that over the years?
A: Oh, gosh, it’s been over 20 years with 12 to 15 people in a class at one time; you’re looking at maybe 500 to 600, at least. At least. And all of them, if they bring something in, it’s usually finished and looks very nice.
Q: What’s the fun for you? The fun part of it?
A: The fun part is the satisfaction of seeing what they can do under my direction and what I can do when somebody says “I don’t think you can fix it, but here.” And then I do fix it and they say “Oh my gosh! I can’t tell where it’s broken.” Or if I have to make new pieces, I can go from any machine to the lathe. I can even do the turnings. I can do all of it.
Q: Can anybody get credits for participating in your class?
A: Not that I’m aware of it. I’m sure they can put it down on their resume that they have been working here doing something.
Q: So when will you retire? You’re going to be 90 …
A: In April, yeah, I’ll be 90 in April. As long as I can physically keep going, I’m going to keep going. I don’t know what will stop me, God forbid. But I don’t know what will stop me. I imagine people will be saying “He’s 90 and he’s still doing that?” I got friends who are 60, and they can’t do that. So with that kind of thing, I kind of gloat a little bit.
Q: Now, how do you keep yourself in shape? Do you exercise and do walking?
A: I used to do walking. That’s one of the things that has kind of slowed me up a little bit. I can’t walk as much. I used to go to Quannapowitt Lake in Wakefield. I could go around that twice almost every other day. Now I’m lucky if I get one third of it, because I have to stop. It’s not my breathing, it’s the legs. I have to rest a second and then go again.
Q: Special diet?
A: Yeah. Cake and ice cream! I don’t really have a diet as such, and I’m not a fussy eater, so whatever my mother used to make, or my daughters or my past wife – whatever they made was fine. I never smoke and I never drank.
Q: Not even a beer?
A: I couldn’t even tell you what a beer tastes like. Even when I was in the service, we used to go to the PX and we’d go down there with four or five guys, and they would get the beer, and I’d ask for a coke, and they would say “C’mon, cut it out.”
Q: Why is that it? Is it your upbringing?
A: My father was kind of a heavy drinker on weekends only, and I don’t know if that impressed me, but I didn’t want to be like that, or if I just didn’t do it. And I married a girl whose parents were Methodist. And Methodists … liquor? Don’t even talk about it.
Q: Now, do you belong to a church here in Saugus?
A: Not in Saugus, but if I have to go – and I don’t go as much as I used to – I go to St. Anthony’s in Revere. I got married in the Immaculate in Revere. Well, I was a Catholic and my wife was Protestant, but we got married in the Catholic Church. And in those days, you could only get married at the railing of the altar. You couldn’t go up the altar. And everybody said, “That won’t last. He’s Catholic and she’s Protestant.” It lasted as long as the good Lord let it, so – if I have any complaints in life – I really don’t think so.
Q: What do you consider the turning point that got you hooked on working with wood?
A: I don’t know if I ever paid attention to that. Way back when.
Q: Anybody that you looked up to as somebody you wanted to model yourself after?
A: No, because way back when we bought the land in Maine, I built my own boat. It was a 16-footer and I had a motor on it. I got one now that was manufactured, but way back then, I built my own boat. I don’t know if there was anything that led me to it.
Q: What’s the greatest reward you have received from having made your life around wood and woodworking?
A: I don’t know it was the woodworking as much as I had the right wife, and I’ve got definitely the right two girls – children – they can’t do enough for me. They did a lot when my wife was here, but now they do my laundry; they do my shopping. You name it, they do it. I come home and it’s done. So, with me, it’s been family, family, family; more so with my wife and my two kids than it was with my siblings and my parents after once I married.
Q: What’s the one piece of wood that you’ve worked with that you are most proud of?
A: That’s a toss-up, too, because it depends what the project is. Basically, it would be walnut, oak, white wood – which is popular – pine. There’s just a big assortment. It depends what the project is.
Q: But of all projects, what’s the one project ….
A: The one with mahogany, I think, way back when I built my wife’s Hope Chest. We still have it. And with the two girls now, it’s “Who’s going to get it?” after I’m gone.
Q: So that’s what you’re most proud of?
A: Yeah, I’m very proud of that because it was more or less at the beginning of my learning how to do things. It’s mahogany – Queen Anne with the carved legs. I mean, it’s a very nice piece. When I was going to night school at the trade school, I had one teacher there that if I learned nothing else, he used to say “I don’t care how long it takes you to make it, but people will see how well it’s been done.” And that was more or less always in my mind when I’m doing something. I don’t care if I have to work over and over, but, when I’m done, I’m proud of what I did. And nobody can tell how long it took, but they can see if it’s done nice or if it’s done lousy.
Q: What’s the one piece that you’ve made that’s on display in the town that you are most proud of?
A: What I think right now, it would be the podium that goes along with the selectmen’s benches. That’s up on the second floor [of Saugus Town Hall]. That podium that’s up there now was made for Town Hall, but it was also made to have access for somebody with disabilities. They can be in a wheelchair, and it’s made in such a way that the mike [microphone] is down and the wheelchair goes right in without any problem.
Q: So what else do you do to keep yourself busy?
A: I do all kinds of repairs for the schools – things I’m fixing – I do all of that.
Q: Anything else that you would like to share before you give me a tour of your shop?
A: Well, I can tell you that I think I have been very fortunate in my life. I’ve got the right family. I got the right attitude. I’m happy at what I do, and I don’t think of the bad things. I try to think more or less of the positive side all of the time, and most people know that. I don’t mingle as much as some people think I should.
Q: Do you get involved in the politics in town or do you stay away from that?
A: Well, I was a Town Meeting member for almost 20 years, and then, of course, I was on the School Committee for four [years], and now I’m on the Council on Aging. Other than that, that’s about as much as I do. Even in there, all the things I had to fix for them is unbelievable. It’s not because they break them. It’s because they work with them and they break.
Q: One last question: What inspiration do you get in working with the wood?
A: Not only for myself, but the people I work with – I tell them that the self-satisfaction of knowing you did this yourself. And most of them say “I know it can’t be fixed.” And I tell them “stick me and we’ll get it done.”
Q: So anything that comes in here gets fixed before it leaves?
A: It won’t go out of here unless it gets done – and done right.
Q: So would you say you have a one thousand batting average on that over the years?
A: I would say pretty darn close. I can’t remember anybody saying “It can’t be done, so forget it.” I never ran into that.