Honoring My Grandfather, A Victim Of The 1918 Flu and Comparisons To Today

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many to look back to a time in our history when a similar world-wide outbreak occurred, the Spanish Influenza of 1918. For my family, this period in history has always been a poignant subject since it is when my grandfather, Louis Testa, succumbed to the virus just shy of his 28th birthday. His son, my father, was only 3 years old.

I can remember many times while growing up how this tragic family moment would pop up and eventually lead to the discussion of – what if? What if Louis was able to survive and continue to support his family and raise his son and daughter (my aunt Mary). Instead, the course of our family changed and all we can do now is remember him and honor his memory, which is partly the purpose of this post. However, for me, other questions have recently become important. How could he have contracted the virus (I have a theory) and how closely does the 1918 pandemic compare to what we are experiencing with COVID-19 today?

Peekskill Post Office where Louis worked on South Street in Peekskill. It was replaced with the one that stands there today.

As you can see in his obituary below, my grandfather was very involved in the Peekskill community and beloved by those who knew him. This was a time when Italian Americans were generally not looked upon in a positive manner by many in the community. It was a challenge, but the ultimate goal was to fully assimilate and become proud American citizens while also embracing their culture and heritage. Louis did that very successfully. So where could he have contracted the virus in 1918? There were surely many opportunities for it to happen but, it seems to me, the most likely place was where he worked – the Peekskill Post Office.

I’m sure it was a prestigious position to have as a young immigrant. An ‘official’ job in a place where all in the community at one time or another enter and interact with each other and the clerks who serve them. Louis’s job as a clerk and interpreter was especially important since he was the link between the growing Italian American community and their ability to communicate and understand the laws of their new home. They were also required to ‘check in’ at the post office periodically so their whereabouts could be monitored. To me, this situation seems to be the most logical scenario where Louis could have contracted the virus. There is no proof or family lore of this being the case, but it seems the most likely.

“The Post Office Force” 1913
L-R Standing: Oliver Tompkins, Louis Testa, Clarance Varion, Fred Stitwelt, Dudley Moore, Charles A. Clark, Seated: James Torpy, Arthur Wessells.

Comparing 1918 to 2020

Of course, there are the obvious similarities between the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and the COVID-19 one we are experiencing today, but there are also key differences worth noting. The nature of the virus and the way it attacked the population was quite different. Today, the COVID-19 virus seems to be most deadly to older adults and especially people who have serious pre-conditions. The young, for the most part, are not seriously affected. In 1918, the deadliest cases happened between the ages of 20-40 years old with an estimate of 28% of the entire population infected with a 2.5% death rate. Thanks to the advanced medical system of today and the various therapies that have prevented many cases from becoming fatal, the death rate will be well below 1%. While we do not have a vaccine for COVID-19 at this time, many are being tested and one will be available relatively soon. In 1918, there was no such hope or even methods or practice of immunization.

The 1918 flu hit with two waves in 1918 and a smaller 3rd wave in 1919. The first wave in the spring of 1918 was relatively typical of a flu epidemic and not very deadly which is not what we are experiencing today. It was the

Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward.

second wave in the fall of 1918 that spread terrible sickness and death throughout the country and what took my grandfather’s life that October. In fact, there was a total of 195,000 flu deaths that October, one of the deadliest months in US history.  The spread of the virus outbreak was caused by a similar reason, purposeful silence and misinformation at the source. As we know, in 1918 Europe was in the midst of WWI. No one knows exactly where the virus originated. Some believe it came out of the diseased trenches used during the war or the 1917 respiratory disease outbreak in China’s Shanxi Province. There is no way to know for sure. When troops began to see widespread infection in countries like Germany, Austria, France, the UK and eventually the US (we entered the war in late 1917) they did not want their enemies to know about the effects the virus had on their armies, fearing it would make them vulnerable. In fact, all armies were experiencing the spread and as the sick were transported home, they brought the virus with them. The only country that eventually reported on the virus outbreak in their country was neutral Spain. Without the wartime censorship the participating countries imposed, Spain was free to publish reports of the outbreak. Even the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII contracted the virus – and recovered. This is why the 1918 virus is commonly known as the Spanish Flu.

As troops came back from Europe, so did the virus. As mentioned above, a third wave of the virus occurred into the spring of 1919 and eventually subsided by the summer. Although not as deadly as the second wave, it still had its effects. In the late spring of 1919 even President Woodrow Wilson contracted the virus during the Paris Peace Conference and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that officially ended the war.

The overall numbers are staggering. One third of the entire world population is thought to have contracted the Spanish Flu with 50 million deaths worldwide. In the US, there were 675,000 flu deaths. On top of that there was a war going on where over 116,000 soldiers died. It must have been absolutely unbearable. There were quarantines, closures and masks then also but no hope for treatments or vaccines. In 1918 there wasn’t even laboratory equipment available yet that could see a virus. It wasn’t until 1933 that the influenza virus could be isolated and studied. The first vaccine was not developed until 1938 and not used to treat the public until after WW2. Today, we see horrible numbers as well. While no where near 1918, the COVID-19 pandemic is no less horrifying. Although the projections for the US are relatively low compared to 1918 they are no easier to accept. As of May 2020, the projected US deaths will be 60-80,000. We know there are medical professionals around the world working with study after study to prepare an effective vaccine and other treatments. Those living in 1918 had no such hope. My family members who were there in 1918 did not speak about it. When the topic came up, they never participated. My great aunts saw their brother die from the virus and it must have been a horrible experience. My father was only three so he didn’t have a memory of the time. As he grew up I’m sure he learned things but he never told us if he did.

There is an interesting irony I realized while writing this. My maternal grandfather, William Suessenbach, was a WWI doughboy in Europe. As one grandfather fought the Spanish Flu in Peekskill, the other fought in the war. As Louis succumbed to the virus, William, a victim of a mustard gas attack, survived the war. I was able to know Pop Pop for a short time until his death when I was 8. It would have been awesome to know Louis. He must have been a great guy.

Louis Testa Obituary:

The Highland Democrat
Peekskill, N.Y., Saturday, November 2, 1918

Louis Testa, courteous, obliging, and true American although of Italian birth, died at his home, 588 South Street, on Sunday, in his 28th year, of influenza, after a brief illness.

Mr. Testa was born in Italy December 13, 1890, the son of Joseph and Mary Milia. Mr. Testa Sr., came to Peekskill in April 1901, from Italy and in October of that year Louis, the son, arrived from across the water to join his father. Within ten days after his arrival, Louis, then a lad of eleven years of age, entered Drum Hill school, beginning thus early to acquaint himself with the language of this, his new country. In a short time, he became so proficient in reading English that John Millar, who was then principal, frequently took him from grade to grade of the school to exhibit his ability, oftentimes to the mortification of some of the less proficient American boys.

Through his own efforts and the kindly interest of principal and teachers he completed the work of the grades and entered High School where he remained for over two years. He then went to Peekskill Military Academy in 1910, spending one year there. Business instincts and the desire to do a man’s work, led Louis to become a clerk and interpreter in the Post Office. He had held this position when he was stricken with the Spanish influenza which caused his death.

He was one of the most courteous, obliging, accommodating clerks that ever faced a patron at the stamp or delivery window in the Peekskill Post Office. Those who know of the innumerable ironbound rules of the Post Office regarding many things, and the red tape that ties up the system, all of which it sometimes seems a devised and invented more to annoy, peeve and inconvenience the public rather than to help aid and assist the patrons, know how often an incompetent, disobliging, disagreeable clerk hides his ignorance, his laziness or indifference behind these orders, some apparently ridiculous. Mr. Testa was always willing to stretch a point to accommodate the public. He was one of those Post Office men who believed the postal system should be carried on to assist the patrons and taxpayers instead of obstacles under the cognomen of petty rules, silly regulations and useless red tape being placed in the way of people who desire to utilize the United States mails and are paying well for the service or what should be service. This desire of “Louie” to please and be courteous, to accommodate or help out was the means of his being reprimanded and checked up more than once for a seeming violation of these technical rules, but no man, woman or child who ever had occasion to be waited upon by or to ask a question of Louis Testa at his window in the Post Office will forget his smile, his polite rejoinder, his endeavor to please and assist the patron whom he was paid to serve.

He was an active member of Peekskill Lodge No. 744 B.P.O.E. having joined the lodge Nov. 3, 1915, and served on  numerous committees. He was on its bowling team and helped win many games for his team. He was also a member of the Guardian bowling team for a number of years and could generally be depended upon for a good score. He was also a member of Peekskill Council No. 462 K. of C.

On October 18, 1914, Mr. Testa married Celia Vozzella of New York. She survives him with two children, Joseph and Mary. He also leaves his parents and two sisters, Misses Nina and Concetta.

The funeral services were held on Tuesday morning from the Church of the Assumption. The Italian American Society turned out in large numbers and a delegation of Elks was present. The interment was at Assumption Cemetery.

Mr. Testa bore an enviable reputation among his fellows and was constantly doing a good turn for not only his Italian friends but his American acquaintances as well.

Testa Family Group 1910

This 1910 photo shows Louis at the age of 20 with his family on South Street in Peekskill. L-R: Concetta (sister), Joseph (father), Louis, Mary (mother) and Nina (sister).

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The Hudson Valley Gateway Region: Verplanck’s Big Time Role in the American Revolution

Thank you to the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce for once again asking me to submit this piece about the importance of local history in their 2019-20 Annual Member Directory:

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Legislator Testa Announces Funding for Seniors Programs

Interview in Chamber

The communities of Peekskill, Cortlandt and Yorktown will receive funding to help deliver important services to those communities senior residents. Legislator Testa was joined by his colleagues on the Board of Legislators in approving an inter-municipal agreement (IMA) that provides up to $30,000 per community operate communications programs meant to inform seniors about the various services that are available to them through the Westchester County Department of Seniors Programs and Services.

The IMA was passed unanimously at Boards meeting on Monday, April 8th. The IMA states, “the programs and services to be provided under the IMAs include; the Livable Communities Regional Host Program which provides outreach to seniors to enable them to participate in and access programs and services to be provided by the Department; and public information/education programs that include educational forums and events at which residents are educated and informed about the Departments myriad programs and services that are designed to enhance the quality of life for Westchester’s seniors.”

Following the vote, Legislator Testa praised the efforts of the Department of Seniors Programs and Services. “Westchester County offers many important and effective services for our senior community. It is important that we take the necessary steps to make sure seniors, their families and caregivers are aware of these services. Looking out for older generations is a moral imperative. This small investment in outreach will pay significant dividends in quality life for our seniors.”

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Legislator John G. Testa Will Not Seek Reelection

Career as County Legislator, Mayor and City Councilman Spans 22 Years

Westchester County Legislator John G. Testa announces he will not run for reelection in 2019. Testa’s career as an elected official has spanned 22 years, beginning with his first election in 1997 for Peekskill City Councilman. He then served 3 terms as Mayor of Peekskill and now will complete his 5th term as County Legislator, serving the last 6 years as Minority Leader for the Board.

“I want to thank the communities I have represented for the continued support given to me over the years,” Testa said. “It has been an honor and a pleasure to serve and now it is time to pass the torch and step back from elected office,” Testa added.

Testa has never lost an election. As a career educator at his alma mater, Peekskill High School, Testa simultaneously represented the City in local government. He retired from teaching in 2013 after 33 years but continued his governmental service at the County Board of Legislators representing District 1, which comprises Cortlandt, Peekskill and Yorktown.

atchamberdesk_blur2As County Legislator, Testa continued his record as a fiscally conservative, taxpayer minded lawmaker. Including his final 3 years as mayor, Testa had a string of 10 straight years with no tax increase budgets. Testa was a leading member of the bipartisan coalition that was formed at the Board of Legislators joining with County Executive Astorino that right-sized county government and put policies in place that preserved essential services, kept taxes flat, supported public-private partnership agreements for Playland and Westchester County Airport, The North 60 Biotech project, and protected local home rule control for Westchester municipalities over federal government overreach.

“My record of fiscal responsibility is one I am very proud of. I wanted to also elevate the standing of Northern Westchester communities in county government and bring the appropriate resources and infrastructure improvements we deserve. I was particularly pleased to bring an office to Peekskill that provides free legal services for eligible Northern Westchester veterans, seniors and victims of domestic violence,” Testa said.

Testa spearheaded initiatives to fully rehabilitate approximately 6 miles of county roads across Northern Westchester, bring improvements to county sewer treatment facilities and local county parks, support Veteran groups, expand programs for youth and seniors, improve Public Safety, support businesses across the district and be an important influence helping local communities and families during the Indian Point Closure process. Testa was a leader in preventing the establishment of barge anchorage sites along the Hudson River and his outstanding record for protecting the environment and supporting environmentally sensitive laws and initiatives has been continually recognized by NYS League of Conservation Voters.

As Mayor of Peekskill, Testa ignited an unprecedented era of revitalization, historic preservation, quality of life improvements, economic development, emergency preparedness, fiscal stability, environmental protection and recreational/open space improvements with new waterfront parks and “Peekskill Stadium,” the only full-sized baseball facility in the area. Private investment and downtown commerce soared with renewed focus on local business and infrastructure improvements, including a million-dollar restoration of the Paramount Theater. Under Testa’s leadership Peekskill won many awards including being named a “Preserve America” community by the US Dept. of the Interior and one of the “Great Places to Live” in Westchester and the Hudson Valley. Testa was named a “Champion of the Arts” by ArtsWestchester for his continued advancement of arts and cultural initiatives. He was also named “Champion of History” by the Lincoln Society in Peekskill for his efforts in creating the Lincoln Depot Museum and was given the “Community Service Award” by the Peekskill Area NAACP. Many initiatives that began under Testa were continued under administrations that followed.

“Although I am leaving public service I intend to remain active and continue to contribute to my community. I will now have more time to dedicate to the Lincoln Depot Museum and emerging business responsibilities. More opportunity to travel, read and learn is very attractive to me. Most importantly, I look forward to more time with my family and being a soon-to-be grandfather.”

testa_desk

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Legislator Testa Secures Funding for Peekskill Youth Programs 

news12 parking lotsWestchester County Board of Legislators (BOL) Minority Leader John G. Testa (R) Peekskill, was joined by his colleagues in passing legislation that authorized the County to enter into Inter-municipal agreements (IMA) with three Westchester cities for a total of $376,924 under the county’s “Invest in Kids” program. Under the agreement, the City of Peekskill will receive $69,231 of funding for its “Advancing Leadership Initiatives for Teens Program” (LIFT). The vote took place at the January 14th regular meeting of the BOL. The IMA terms provide for $245,000 to come from Westchester County and the remainder to be contributed by the municipalities.

The Legislation states that the various programs that will be funded throughout Westchester County, “…use positive youth development models to focus on providing opportunities for to actively acquire the skills and abilities needed to grow up to be competent, caring and healthy adult.”

Legislator John Testa retired in 2013 after a 33-year career as a Peekskill High School teacher. As a former teacher, Legislator Testa understands the importance of youth programs that give kids, especially at-risk kids healthy and constructive options for their time after school. “I was very happy to work with my legislative colleagues to secure these funds for Peekskill. I am very familiar with the LIFT Program and the excellent work that they do.” Legislator Testa said. “When I was a teacher, I saw first-hand how programs like LIFT improved the lives of many of my students. Summers and the after school hours are particularly dangerous times for kids who are unsupervised or who don’t have a strong family support system at home. The LIFT Program operates year-round which means that kids can build permanent and lasting relationships within our community even when school is not in session. This is an excellent investment in our youth and their future.”

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Statement from Minority Leader John Testa on “Ban the Box” Law

News12_BanTheBox.jpg

Testa warns legislative agenda is “Death by a Thousand Cuts”
to Westchester County small businesses.

On Monday, December 4, 2018, my Democrat colleagues on the Board of Legislators (with the exception of one Democrat) passed a Local Law (by a 11-5 vote) that prohibits businesses in Westchester County from asking if a job applicant has been convicted of a serious crime. This legislation is an outrageous overreach into private business and a continuation of their assault on the small business community. I disagreed with County Executive Latimer when he ordered that the county will not ask about job applicants’ criminal history but I accept that it is his prerogative as the executive branch of our government to set those policies for county employment. But to legislate that private businesses can no longer establish their own standards for what type of character and integrity they require in an employee- using past criminal activity as a guide- is a disturbing level of government interference in private business.

BanTheBox2The legislation which has most often been called “ban the box” (referring to a box that must be checked on a job application related to criminal convictions) the current legislation has had a few name changes as the laws sponsors sought to make it sound like some moral imperative. Another name that the sponsors tried was “Fair Chance to Work Act”. They finally arrived at the current title, “Local Law to Prohibit Discrimination based on one’s criminal conviction”. Thankfully we have a number of federal employment protections for job applicants like race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, birthplace, ancestry, culture, or linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group. These are protected classes because they are characteristics not indicators of character.  An individual who has committed a criminal act is not a member of a protected class and therefore a small business owner is not practicing discrimination if they choose to disqualify those applicants, this legislation also requires employers- who may have any number of applicants for a position to offer a ‘written analysis’ to job applicants if they are not hired. This is an affront to the notion of private enterprise.

New York State has long held the dubious distinction as the most inhospitable environment for small businesses in the United States. Unfortunately, since taking control of the Board of Legislators last year, after four years of bipartisan cooperation, my Democrat colleagues have embraced this anti-business posture in a series of legislative actions that hurt small businesses and put them at a competitive disadvantage in our region. Dictating what should be the purview of private business decisions like forcing small businesses with as few as 5 part-time employees to pay for sick leave will have a profound impact on a small business. (our request to negotiate a compromise that would exclude businesses with less than 10 employees was ignored) The sponsors of the paid sick leave must have understood the law’s negative impact since they excluded Westchester County from following the paid sick leave law for hourly county employees.

BanTheBox1Other legislative overreach into private business practices include legislation that prohibits small business owners from asking about a prospective employees prior salary, dictating application processes to private residential cooperative building associations, proposed red light cameras that will put further strain on commerce- especially Westchester County retail businesses, passing legislation that raises licensing fees for independent home improvement contractors both now and again in a year by almost 50%.

I am all for giving individuals a second chance, it has been a mantra of mine my entire adult life as an educator and elected official and many business owners do the same as a matter of choice. To legislate and force business to ignore criminal records of a prospective employee is overreaching at its worst.

Small businesses are the real engine of employment in our county and I believe a continuation of this near-sighted agenda will result in a “Death by a Thousand Cuts” for some those businesses. It will also make it far more difficult for economic development organizations in our business community to attract and retain the critical small and mid-size businesses that are the lifeblood of our economy. It will cost jobs and further inhibit the success of local small businesses.

While social activism is an important function in society and the Democrats on the BOL have absolute control of the legislative agenda, handing over the reins of the legislative branch to social activists must be balanced against the needs of those who keep our economy going, the risk takers, the employers and entrepreneurs of Westchester County.

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The Hudson Valley Gateway Region: The Cradle of America

Thank you to the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce for asking me to submit this piece about the importance of local history in their 2018-19 Annual Member Booklet:

HVGCC1819_Testa_p2

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