By Elizabeth F. McNamara
It’s a funny thing, to live next door to a town icon. Moving to East Greenwich 30 plus years ago from out of state, we had no idea what we were getting. We got a lot over the years, as did everyone who knew Joe Zenga.
Joe’s big heart finally gave out last week in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s hard to imagine East Greenwich without him.
For many, it starts with Zenga’s Restaurant, a palace of Italo-American cuisine on Main Street (Cafe Fresco occupies the space now), started by his father Joe Sr. that Joe eventually took over.
Lots of people dined there over the years. Greg Dantas remembers going there as a kid, with his grandmother and aunt. It was the start of a long friendship across the generations. As a teenager, Dantas worked at Thorpe’s Pharmacy* where he’d often see Joe, who was always happy to talk. By the time Dantas went into real estate, Joe had established himself as a major player in the local rental real estate scene, owning dozens of rental apartments. When Dantas opened Rhode Island Real Estate in 2012, Joe called, telling the younger man he wanted to invest in his company. “I believe in you,” Joe said. Dantas declined but always appreciated the gesture. Over the years, Joe would call to ask questions about real estate.
“Even though we were decades apart in age, we had a lot of similarities,” Dantas said. They were both into real estate, of course, but they’d also both served in the military – actually, Joe met and married his wife, Ursula, while serving in Germany in the 1950s.
And, jokes Dantas, they both had the car disease – owned a lot of them.
“He was just kind of the picture of the what the American dream was,” Dantas said. He took what he’d been given and “worked his ass off.” Dantas said, despite his significant success, Joe remained humble, “a standup guy.”
Not surprisingly, when Dantas married a few years ago, Joe and Ursula were there.
Joe was also a mentor to a number of people who worked for him over the years. Adam Perry worked for Joe in a variety of capacities for 24 years, starting as a dishwasher at Zenga’s. When Joe learned Perry mowed lawns, suddenly he was mowing lawns at a number of Zenga downtown properties, pushing his mower from lawn to lawn.
“He was a good role model for me and other kids,” Perry said. “He taught us to work hard and stay sharp. He’s somebody I try to emulate.”
After Perry started his own heating business, Joe would hire him to work on the apartments. “There was always something going on,” said Perry. “Joe was a guy you thought would continue on forever. He was strong, a fighter.” Even just two days before he died, drugged up with pain medication, Joe was still talking about the apartments to Perry – ”he was still goal oriented.”
Joe served on a number of boards and committees over his lifetime, including the EG Zoning Board of Review, where he served for a record 26 years. He only stepped down in 2012 after term limits were instituted. Town Councilor Renu Englehart remembers him with fondness.
“I sat on the Zoning Board with him for many years and he was a joy to be around. He was a great mentor and very kind person,” she said. When Englehart decided to run for Town Council in 2018, “Joe was one of the first people I told.”
“I’m not sure it is possible to separate Joe from the town’s history for the second half of the 20th century,” said Town Planner Lisa Bourbonnais. “When I first met him he was still wearing an apron in the family restaurant.”
She said Joe was instrumental in the creation of the Historic District Commission, and he served on that board before switching to the Zoning Board.
“He prided himself on making sure the town’s regulatory environment was user-friendly and he was deeply committed to making sure East Greenwich maintained a reputation for having the highest possible quality of life for all residents,” said Bourbonnais. “Mr. Zenga was an invaluable resource for our department as an armchair local historian. Whenever we were short on details about past activities at a given site or didn’t know how a property came to look the way it did, we could always just call Joe and he would give us the whole backstory. I’m going to miss that.”
Joe’s influence extended well beyond East Greenwich and perhaps was most keenly felt during the 1990-91 state banking crisis.
“Joe was a voice of reason among the depositors during the banking crisis, and Gov. [Bruce] Sundlun, who inherited the disaster from his predecessor, valued his approach,” recalled David Preston, owner of New Harbor Group. Preston served as Sundlun’s communications director during the crisis. “Those were difficult times and many depositors were angry – and rightly so. They had been completely betrayed by state government, and the management at their credit unions.”
Preston said many unrealistic schemes were floated by “various charlatans” and depositors would rally around them. When Sundlun inevitably would say, “No way,” the depositors would be respond angrily.
“But Joe, as a member of their group with a real stake in the outcome, could explain why these were bad ideas and the depositors found him credible,” Preston said.
My husband Neal and I were only Joe and Ursula’s next door neighbors. It was an enduring relationship, even if we didn’t have big roles in each other’s lives.
Sometime, Joe would come over while I was working in the yard and pay me the highest compliment: “You work hard,” he’d say, “like Ursula.” He and Ursula were married for 65 years.
The last few years, the EGFD rescue truck became a frequent presence in front of their Prospect Street home. Joe had developed heart problems. But even if he went into the hospital for a few days, he’d come out and we’d see him driving his white minivan around in no time, checking on apartments, taking Ursula for a spin, getting out and doing, just as he’d always done.
Then there was the time our lives intersected. Three days before Christmas in 2015, I was walking home and saw Ursula sitting in the front of the EGFD rescue truck. “Is it Joe?” I asked. Of course it was. I offered my sympathy and prayers and went home. Meanwhile, Neal, 20 years younger than Joe, ended up in his own Providence rescue truck less than an hour later. They both had had heart attacks and both were treated in the Emergency Department at Rhode Island Hospital, where they both ended up needing cardiac catheterizations at the same time. Joe got there first so he got the cath lab in the ED; Neal was trucked over to the other side of the hospital to another cath lab. It wasn’t until the next day, when I saw Ursula in the cardiac ICU, that we learned of the synchronicity. Small world. Small state. Small town.
Thankfully, both Neal and Joe recovered. It bonded us a little deeper.
The last time I saw Joe, the first or second day of April, he was sitting in the front passenger seat of the white minivan. He waved me over. It was a beautiful spring day and Christine Zenga and her brother David Zenga were taking their parents out for drive. Christine told me later they ended up on the East Side of Providence, eating ice cream.
When I talked to him, Joe’s voice was still strong. He told me he was trying to figure out how he could beat this thing, at least buy some time. After all, he had things to do.
Godspeed, Joe. We were lucky to know you.
*There was a Thorpe’s Pharmacy as well as a liquor store until the 1990s.
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