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Friends, family, and admirers share their memories of the longtime local volunteer
By Ron Scopelliti
As the ceremony to rededicate the basketball courts outside Anna McCabe Elementary School was set to get underway on Saturday, June 15, the area was filled with activity. Young people shot baskets from the freshly renovated surface. Workers secured vendor tents against the day’s gusty winds. Spectators found their way to the folding chairs set up in front of the public address system. But in the midst of all the bodies in motion was a serene face on a plaque, belonging to the longtime volunteer who served as mentor to so many local student athletes, and for whom the courts were named – the late Ralph Catuogno.
The courts were originally named in his honor on April 6, 1979, a day that was proclaimed by town officials as “Ralph Catuogno Day.”
While newcomers, outsiders, and residents who are too young to remember may walk by the plaque that bears his likeness without giving it a second look, mentioning Ralph’s name around people who knew him always brings a strong response.
“Ralph was just a great guy,” said Smithfield High basketball coach Joe Bennett as preparations for the ceremony neared completion. “He really never had a bad word to say about anyone.” Bennett noted however: “Sometimes it was hard to understand him when he talked with his pipe in his mouth.”
Mention of the pipe brought an immediate look of nostalgia to the face of assistant basketball coach Mike Tartaglia, who remembers Ralph as his coach in both youth and high school football.
“Any time I smell a pipe, I think of Ralph,” he said.
Despite his involvement with youth football, Ralph is most remembered on the basketball courts. For more than 40 years he volunteered as the director of the Girls and Boys Basketball Leagues for the Smithfield Recreation Department, and he was one of the founders of the town’s summer basketball program.
His presence on the courts, however, wasn’t confined to Smithfield. Ralph, who passed way in 2017, was the official timer for Brown University and Bryant University for 35 years, and the official Big East shot clock operator for 30 years. He officiated high school basketball games for 25 years and college basketball games for 15 years, and officiated the boy’s high school playoffs for 18 consecutive years.
The Rhode Island Basketball Coaches Association presented him with their Distinguished Service Award for 50 years of service. And the honors didn’t stop there. Over the years he received awards from Central High School, Words Unlimited, and the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials (IAABO) Board 84.
Ralph is a member of the Rhode Island Interscholastic Hall of Fame, the Order of Sons of Italy Hall of Fame, the Smithfield Heritage Hall of Fame, the Rhode Island Coaches High School Football Hall of Fame, and the New England Basketball Hall of Fame.
And he’s had two scholarships established in his name by IAABO Board 84, which continue to be given out to Rhode Island scholar-athletes.
All this was in addition to a distinguished career as a pharmaceutical chemist with Ciba-Geigy, where he helped develop drugs to fight cardiac ailments. A Korean War veteran who excelled in three sports while attending Central High School, Ralph and his late wife Olive also raised seven children. Though his son passed away, his six daughters were able to enjoy the honor of having the courts rededicated in his name.
In a 2007 interview for Your Smithfield Magazine, journalist Dick Martin asked Ralph which of his honors and awards he was most proud of. His response, as reported by Martin:
“Don’t ask me that,” he smiles, then after thinking a moment says, “They named a scholarship after me. That’s important. I always linked the two together, athletics and education. Education is very important to me. I believe in education.”
In an e-mail exchange with The Smithfield Times, Ralph’s daughter Lori, after consulting with her sisters, reiterated this sentiment.
“Studies came first,” she wrote, “but he did stress that education and athletics went hand and hand as they made you a well-rounded individual.”
These thoughts were echoed in a speech given during the dedication ceremony by Ralph’s grandson, Adam Harrington, who recalled how fond Ralph was of the courts that were named for him.
“I know that they held a very special place in Ralph’s enormous heart,” he said. “Every time we drove by, Ralph would take a gander to see who was on the courts, what was going on. He paid real close attention to these courts, and I know he was proud of them, as are we.”
He said it was appropriate that the courts are located outside an elementary school, noting: “One of my grandfather’s core beliefs was that involvement in athletics serves as a vehicle for furthering education.
“My grandfather wasn’t that interested in helping people become professional athletes. He wanted to help people become better people.”
Adam left the audience with a reminder of what he remembers as Ralph Catuogno’s mantra: “Just give something back to the kids.”
Former Town Council member Burleigh Briggs also took a turn at the microphone to introduce one of Ralph’s classmates from Central High School, Jimmy Peluso. The two of them played on the same baseball and basketball teams with Ralph making All State in basketball, and Jimmy making All State in baseball.
“Ralph was always a dedicated person who would help you to no end,” he recalled. “I’ve got to say, I am proud to be here, and I’m proud they built this park for Ralphie.”
Recognizing the volunteer effort at the courts
Smithfield Asset Management Commission chairman David Russas, who spearheaded the drive to restore the basketball courts, hosted the dedication ceremony and made a particular point of thanking the numerous volunteers who were responsible for completing the project.
The process started some 2 ½ years ago, when he presented a proposal to the Smithfield Town Council. Though the primary funding for the renovation came from the Town of Smithfield, it wasn’t enough to fund the project to the level it eventually reached. That, says Russas, required an effort that drew in people and companies from throughout the community to help with labor, materials, and money.
Foremost among the volunteers, Russas noted the efforts of Al Costantino. While Russas describes himself as the guy in the office, he said, “Al Costantino was our ‘boots on the ground.’”
“He probably put in 200 hours to finish this court,” Russas said.
But the effort to complete the courts also involved signing up the sponsors whose names now appear at the courts. Russas brought in $40,000, cold-calling each sponsor.
The combined effort of the volunteers and sponsors resulted in what he feels is “a top-notch court.”
“There’s no other court in the state that’s this beautiful,” Russas said. “Everyone did their part.”
Russas provided The Smithfield Times with the following list of the volunteers and corporate sponsors who were responsible for the project:
Rodney Carriere of United Rentals
John Fogarty of Boyle & Fogarty
Josh Wilbur of Bay Crane
John Tassoni of The Sentinel Media Group
Al Gizzarelli Jr. of ASG Builders
Chris Adler of Adler Brothers Construction
John Rudis of Valley Green
Brian Van Gorden of BP Van Gorden
Rep. Bernie Hawkins
David Powers of Greenville Water
Eric Jeffries of EPK Construction
Chris Dorsey of Concrete Concepts
Jackson Despres of Smithfield Peat
Steven Golotto of Roof Masters
Kelley Schimmel of Navigant Credit Union
Karl Martone of The Martone
Jay Dunlea of Laura’s Restaurant
Chad Sirois of Wesco Oil
Nina Hall of Vision Associates
Tom Winfield of Anderson-Winfield
Rick Metters of Fidelity Investments
Kyla Casey of Uno Pizzeria