CLARK, NJ - Not long before he died in August, long-time resident Joseph Sbarro was recognized for his 56 years as a member of the Clark Volunteer Emergency Squad. During his time with the squad, Sbarro served as Captain, Chaplain and Trustee. Having been a medic in the US Navy, Sbarro’s decision to join the squad seemed a natural leap to his wife of 64 years, Trudy.
A fellow squad member described Sbarro, better known as Buddy, as one of a kind. “He was strict, he ran a tight ship in a good way, he was tough on himself and the people around him, he expected everyone to bring their all.”
Sbarro gave to the squad and the community over the years always jumping in with both feet as his wife described it, often doing things a little outside conventional procedure to help people in need. Trudy Sbarro said Joe never thought of his own safety first even in dangerous situations.
He also brought a sense of camaraderie to the squad when he organized holiday gatherings, community events and more. Trudy laughed when she shared a story of her husband decorating a Christmas tree and then hanging it upside down like a chandelier at a squad party one year.
Sbarro’s community involvement didn’t start and end with the squad either according to Trudy. He also was a Clark Little League coach, a member of the Knights of Columbus Council #5503, the American Legion Post #328, the VFW Post #7363 and the Deutscher Club. He was deeply committed to his church, St. John the Apostle, serving as an usher, money-counter and funeral-server for many years. He was also a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Trudy claims she was never one to join things, but she accompanied Joe in many of his community groups as part of a ladies’ auxiliary or extra set of hands. She said she helped wherever Joe needed her.
Joe Sbarro was honored numerous times for his accomplishments. At work, he was honored for his achievements as the top salesperson in the country and made part of the #1 Club. Locally he was awarded Clark Citizen of the Year by B’nai B’rith. He was even honored with a proclamation of Joe Sbarro Day by one-time Mayor Robert Ellenport for his community service.
When he joined the squad, Sbarro could never have imagined he would be on the receiving end of their services one day too. Sbarro collapsed beside his wife during a church service in 1998 in what she said was later determined to be cardiac sudden death. After valiant efforts by many on site when he went down and then by emergency responders when they arrived, Sbarro’s wife was told he had died. Then almost miraculously with an entire congregation in prayer, Sbarro was found to have a faint pulse and was taken to the hospital for care and recovery.
Healing and improvement took some time for Sbarro who found himself surrounded by his wife and their six children, spouses, grandchildren, friends and neighbors. The spirit he gave out in his community service came back to him and his family in their time of need.
Trudy Sbarro shared that her husband was dedicated to his family, work and the community. She said he gave his all to each. “We had dinner here, all of us, every night, even if Joe had to run out to work or the squad or whatever after, he was here at the table with all of us first,” she said. “We’d often just stay around it (table) and keep talking together after he left, it’s what we did.”
Trudy Sbarro made it clear the family shares a strong and close relationship but like every family, they have had their share of challenges and troubles too. She credits the strength of family bonds and faith for being able to help each of their own through the trials that weighed on them.
Spend a short time with Trudy Sbarro and one realizes she is a grateful, determined, strong and admittedly blessed woman. She speaks proudly of her husband and children and all that they represent in the story of her life.
What she doesn’t speak about is her strength to fight not just for her family, but her own life when liver cancer struck. Despite six attempts at a liver transplant, only to find each time that the match wasn’t quite right for her, Sbarro did not give up. She said she knew it would all work out. She was right and on the seventh attempt, she underwent successful transplant surgery.
Sbarro went forward celebrating the life she and Joe had built with their six children and seven grandchildren. In the last few years she spent her days caring for her husband through illness and his final days.
The dedication to each other that Joe and Trudy shared at the start of their life together continues today in the commitment their children have to their mom and each other. Sbarro’s children blanket Trudy each day. “I’m never alone for long,” said Trudy Sbarro. “One of my kids is always calling me, my daughter Kathy will stop in here soon too, she always does.”
Sbarro’s daughter Kathy Faede came in, almost on que, and added to the conversation about her parents. Faede spoke with pride about her dad’s life, about missing him and the hardship of losing him. She also spoke about her mom’s incredible strength. She said her mom was always positive and always kept it together for all of them. “When she was going through chemo, she was up everyday dressed, with her makeup on and encouraging everyone else,” said Faede. “She was the same way every time a liver transplant didn’t work out, she kept telling us it would come, and she was right.”
By the time the interview closed, it became apparent that in many ways, Trudy Sbarro is the bedrock upon which her children and her husband built their home and world. As Joe worked multiple jobs to care for his family, Trudy nourished the home front.
Some stories feel like they should end with “and they lived happily ever after” and this might just be one of them. In seeking to tell a story of a Clark resident and his endless contributions to the community, it became apparent that the story is about so much more than just one person. It’s about a family, built by two people dedicated to each other and their children and their ability to build the same commitment in their family as they carry on the family legacy in all their days to come.