Sunday, June 17, 2018
Octavius ‘Tabby’ Carboni:
A Caesar as Spry as A Cat
Tabby Carboni came to this country as a child and grew up to become a contributor Ridgefield’s civic, business and recreational life for most of the 20th Century. He was an insurance agent, a banker, a school board member, the town’s treasurer, and a lot more — including an accurate source of what life was like a century ago.
Octavius Joseph Carboni was born in Monterado, Italy, in 1899, a son of Benvenuto and Assunta Casagrande Carboni. His father came here in 1901 and worked as a mason on the town’s new water supply system. In 1903, Tabby, his older brother, Adrian, and their mother sailed to the United States to join Benvenuto in Ridgefield. (The family would later grow to include Olinto “Lynce” Carboni, Mary Carboni Mitchell, and Reno “Renz” Carboni.)
“My mother was the first Italian woman in town,” Carboni said in a 1971 interview with his sons Stephen and Robert (which will be posted here in the coming days). “My brother and I were the first two Italians who went to the public schools.”
In 1908 his parents opened a grocery story at the corner of Prospect Street and Bailey Avenue, living in an apartment on the second floor. As a boy, Caboni worked at the store, doing various chores to help his parents.
Also as a boy, he had to deal the discrimination aimed at the immigrant population. “I always felt a little inferior,” he said. “I regarded myself as a foreigner. I just felt myself lower, especially when they called you names that you don’t hear too much today. Kids would do that.”
But he quickly decided to become a part of his new nation and community. “I paid more attention to school work and Adrian and I did pretty well. We both graduated at the top of the class in the school we went to through the eighth grade.”
This, after attending kindergarten for two years, “just to learn the language.”
He in fact learned the language so well that, from his childhood through his teen years, he served as a translator. He was often called upon to accompany Italian-speaking mothers when they took sick children to English-speaking doctors, and was also a translator at weddings and other ceremonies. Even adults studying English in night school would seek the boy’s help with their homework.
Besides helping his father at the store, Carboni got his first official job when he was 13: he was a “printer’s devil” at The Ridgefield Press, assisting in the paper’s production in the basement of the Masonic Building, just south of the town hall. However, he also wrote up local sports events for The Press — setting his words in lead type, letter by letter, with his own hands. He eventually earned $7.50 a week — about $190 in 2018.
Carboni later worked for the Gilbert and Bennett Manufacturing Company in Georgetown, and the U.S. Post Office. He then spent 28 years as an agent for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, retiring in 1957. Two years later, he joined the State National Bank — among the first employees of the office here when it opened in 1959 as the first new “commercial bank” in town since 1900. He retired in 1967.
During World War I he served in the Connecticut Home Guard. In World War II, he was a member of the Ridgefield Ration Board, in charge of tire distribution, which was very restricted in the war years. Sometimes, he recalled, people without a real need for a tire would come up to him and ask for one, half in jest.
“Walk!” Carboni would reply. “It’ll do you good.”
He believed in exercise. In 1989, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, more than 100 family and friends attended a party at the Italian American Club where he joked to the audience: “I’ve had to cut my jogging down to two miles a day from five.”
Active in sports from his youth onward, Carboni played for Ridgefield baseball, basketball and football teams. He was also an accomplished golfer and bowler.
In 1992 interview, he described the source his nickname “Tabby,” bestowed by schoolmates. “I was spry and somewhat athletic,” he said with a grin. “The kids called me ‘Tabby Cat.’ Finally, they left off the ‘cat.’”
He was honored for his sports achievements by the Danbury Old Timers in 1973 and the Ridgefield Old Timers in 1992 — the first year the then-new organization handed out awards.
Carboni was also active in the Italian-American Mutual Aid Society — the “Italian Club” — and served as its president during World War II. (Years later, his son Steve was elected president, the only father and son to have both served as president.)
Carboni was a member of the Board of Education for 20 years during the 1930s and 40s, and was the town’s treasurer from 1957 to 1959 — between his retirement from Met Life and his job at State National.
His concern for the older population in town was demonstrated by his service on the Housing Authority, which oversees apartments for the elderly, from the 1970s until his death in 1992 at the age of 93.
Carboni was esteemed for his memory of the long-ago people, places and events in Ridgefield. Over the years he was often consulted for information about life in the early 20th Century, and his recollections of the people and events of long ago remained clear, even when he was in his 90s. (He and another oldtimer, Francis D. Martin, sometimes publicly disagreed about various historical events. In the end, however, Carboni was usually proven to have the more accurate information.)
For many of his last years, Carboni met regularly with other older Ridgefielders at the Keeler Tavern Museum to help identify scenes and individuals from the historic collection of photographs taken by Joseph Hartmann from the 1890s into the 1930s.
Many were snapshots of the details of life long ago. Recalling in 1971 what the Ridgefield Station — across Prospect Street from his father’s store — was like, Carboni said, “The 5:15 was a very popular train, coming in at night with people who commuted to New York City. The area where the Ridgefield Supply Company is now was full of horses and carriages waiting for the trains…. Some of the horses were high spirited. When the train came in, it made a lot of noise and the people had to hold on to them with all their might.”
While everyone knew him as Tabby, Carboni had a somewhat unusual given name, Octavius. It wasn’t until well into adulthood that his father explained where that name came from and that one of his middle names was Caesar.
Asked whether he was impressed to learn he’d be named for Octavius, who became Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, Tabby Carboni replied with a chuckle, “No. I didn’t know him — or Julius either!”
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