Mike Conte came to Homeland in April. Since then, he has made friends — “lots of them.”
“They’re really nice here,” he said. “I like the people. I like how the staff caters to you.”
Mike and his wife, Betty, share a bright, corner-room personal care suite. His roots are deep in Harrisburg, where he was born and raised.
Mike’s parents were immigrants from Italy. In the 1920s, his father bought a bar and restaurant at 4th and Kelker streets in Harrisburg. Even though it was named the Keystone Restaurant, everyone knew it as Tony’s, after Mike’s dad. The owner of the business next door, Lappley’s Shoe Store, was a good friend of Tony’s who was also treasurer of Camp Curtin Bank.
“That’s where my dad got all his loans,” Mike recalls. “Everything was done on a handshake.”
Mike’s parents ran the restaurant, and Mike and his older sisters, Rose and Evelyn, helped by washing dishes or cleaning the kitchen. His father was constantly smoking a cigar. If he put it down to conduct business, he would tell the kids, “First one to find my cigar gets a quarter.”
At home, life revolved around the neighborhood firehouse, now the Pennsylvania National Fire Museum.
“We used to know the firemen,” he said. “The police would stop there. It was like old home week. There was a baseball field where we’d play baseball all summer or go to City Island to swim in the river. I was glad I was born in that time because they were the good old days.”
After graduating from William Penn High School in 1951, Mike worked for a building contractor and then at the family restaurant until he was drafted. He spent two years in the Army, including a stretch in peacetime Korea.
“I was a cook, but they wouldn’t let me cook,” he said. “You had to work your way up to that. That’s when you were peeling potatoes by hand, 15 or 20 bags at a time.”
Not long after Mike came home, his father died, and Mike and his mother ran the restaurant. In 1957, he went to work in the furniture service center of Pomeroy’s department store, loading and unloading trucks and helping with deliveries. He worked there the rest of his career, totaling 39 years with Pomeroy’s and its successor, Bon-Ton. The work could be challenging, but Mike enjoyed the company of his coworkers and brought his sense of humor to the job.
Mike and Betty first met before he entered the service when mutual friends were getting married.
“Every Saturday night, we’d get dressed up to the nines and go to the movies,” Mike said. They’d catch two movies at different Harrisburg cinemas, enjoying Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in the golden age of Hollywood musicals.
When he returned from the service, they lost track of each other. In 1962, Mike married a woman he met on a visit with his sister, but only six years later, she died from cancer. Suddenly, Mike was a single dad to their daughter.
“Thank God my mom was still around,” Mike said. “We made her the official babysitter. ‘That’s okay with me,’ she would say.”
About seven months later, he and Betty reconnected.
“We’ve been married now 51 years,” he said.
Mike and Betty enjoyed traveling on bus trips through the United States, often in the South and New England. He has a collection of postcards from Harrisburg’s past, including all 16 firehouses, and he still loves watching old movies, especially gangster films. James Cagney and George Raft are favorites.
Now at Homeland, he keeps busy, especially enjoying the various musical activities and bingo.
Mike makes a point of not taking things too seriously.
“I make a joke out of everything,” he said. “You can’t go around being mopey all the time.”
Homeland Center (www.homelandcenter.org) offers levels of care including personal care, memory care, skilled nursing and rehabilitation. Homeland also provides hospice, home care, home health and palliative care services to serve the diverse and changing needs of families throughout central Pennsylvania. For more information or to arrange a tour, please call 717-221-7900.