They grew up in Tacoma’s Hilltop when it was called Little Italy, on four blocks along Grant Street. They were nine boys as close today as when they met some 70 years ago.
In a neighborhood that exists now only in their memories, they learned family, friendship and marriage last forever.
Those nine boys — the youngest is now 72 — never forgot those lessons.
“We are like brothers, and the only one of us who hasn’t been married 50 years or more is me,” said Ramo Natalizio, 74. “Sandy and I were married 49 years when I lost her on Dec. 3, 2012.”
Eight of the nine are of Italian lineage — Pat Kelly is Irish — and all still live in Tacoma.
“How long have I known these guys?” asked Tony DeRosa, 73. “I’ve never not known them.”
John Messina, 76, remembers playing with these friends before he attended school, in a close-knit neighborhood that watched its own.
“You didn’t want to get caught doing something; it would beat you home from five blocks away,” said Joe Munizza, 72. “Everybody knew you and knew your parents. If you got caught doing something you shouldn’t, you might get whacked by a neighbor — then get whacked again once you got home.”
The families of Little Italy were largely second-generation homeowners, following parents who had immigrated to Tacoma.
“You were visiting some other family every Saturday — five, six families in the backyard, eating cakes and sandwiches, drinking wine,” Munizza said. “Everyone in the neighborhood had a big garden, some had chickens and rabbits and goats.”
Kelly’s Irish family moved to the Hilltop when he was 4. He wasn’t a stranger long.
“It was the best neighborhood of people you could grow up with,” said Kelly, 75. “Guys would come to the door, knock and say ‘Who are you?’ and we would be having fun from then on.”
Every family but Kelly’s went to St. Rita of Cascia Catholic Church, where the priest spoke Italian. When the church sponsored a softball team of high school players, Kelly was on it.
“They put us in the City League, playing tavern teams, and we usually beat them,” Natalizio said. “We had some athletes — not me —but our whole outfield ran track. You couldn’t hit a ball over their heads.”
On that team were three DeRosa brothers, Tony, Bob and Joe. Also on the roster were Messina, Kelly, Natalizio, Munizza, Joe Doria and Al Rettura.
When fast-pitch softball season was over, the boys moved on to something else.
“We played whatever sport was in season,” said Bob DeRosa, 78.
“No one had a best friend, but we were always together,” said Rettura, 81.
Kelly remembers how the neighborhood had everything.
“There were 100-foot trees with vines on them across from St. Rita’s, and that was our jungle,” Kelly said. “There was a swamp near 15th and Sprague and in between, any vacant lot was turned into a ballfield.”
Messina, to hear his friends tell it, was the wild card — a boy who would push the envelope in the mild days of the 1950s.
“None of us ever got in trouble, really, except for silly kid stuff,” said Joe DeRosa, 75. “John was our version of a hell-raiser. He was always hatching some scheme. He was brilliant, fun-loving, a great friend.”
And then Messina went to St. Edward’s Seminary in Kenmore.
“When we heard that, we all said the same thing — ‘You’re kidding!’ ” Joe DeRosa said.
Whatever plans led toward the priesthood, however, ended soon enough. What happened?
“I turned 18,” Messina said.
Adulthood and marriage ultimately led the friends to leave the neighborhood, settle in other parts of Tacoma.
“We left, so we didn’t occupy the homes of our parents, our grandparents. That’s what happened to the Italian neighborhood,” Munizza said.
They all attended one another’s weddings. And they got lucky.
“All our wives not only got along, they liked each other,” Messina said.
The friendships never faded. None of the nine ever moved out of Tacoma. There are card games and golf matches, Fourth of July picnics and various celebrations that continue today.
“It’s been 60-70 years, and I’m always happy to see every one of them,” Kelly said. “When we’re together, it’s like nothing has changed.”
If anything, they appreciate one another more.
“I look back, they have supported me in difficult times. My friends have given my life meaning, purpose and a lot of fun,” Joe DeRosa said. “I’d feel empty without them.
“I think we all feel blessed it happened all.”