Tributes spanning the generations are resounding this week for Charles “Duke” Stefanelli, Jr., who died late last week a few months after his 95th birthday.
The funeral is scheduled for Thursday at 10 a.m. at St. Michael Parish with visiting hours from 4 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the Shawsheen Funeral Home, 281 The Great Road.
A familiar presence in Bedford for almost 75 years as a store proprietor, school custodian, and church caretaker, Stefanelli was known and beloved for his ebullience and kindness.
“He was a rare and faithful friend,” said Patricia Marks, on the staff of the Parish of St. Michael for almost 40 years, many of them as director of education.
“He was just one of a kind, one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known,” said Sherman Primmerman, a friend for more than 60 years.
He was “the man that thought he was put on the earth to help people and make them smile,” adds Facilities Director Ron Scaltreto, who grew up across the street from the Stefanelli family in Bedford.
Born in Concord, Stefanelli attended Concord High School and Tilton Academy. After his discharge from the Navy in the late 1940s, he joined his parents Charles and Matilda (Tillie) at their Bedford Fruit Store, 70 The Great Road, a place that everyone called Stefanelli’s. He eventually became the owner.
“Duke was the best,” said retired Police Sgt. Jim McGovern from his home on Cape Cod. He recalled stopping into all of the stores on the block as part of his police beat, “and Charlie and Tillie and Duke would be there, and I would socialize with them and the customers.”
Kevin Dupont grew up around the corner from the block of stores that lined The Great Road. Duke Stefanelli, he said, “was the definition of a ‘good soul,’ a ball of unremitting energy forever dotting around the aisles and back room of the market, helping customers, stocking shelves, and acting as the store’s ambassador of goodwill and good feelings.
“As kids in the neighborhood, we would spend hot summer days on the store’s front steps, shaded by the air conditioner over the door that sent relief our way in tiny drips of water,” Dupont recalled. “We drank our five-cent Cokes and Orange Crushes and nibbled on miniature Table Talk pies (13 cents each, two for a quarter). We eagerly tore open a fresh pack of baseball cards (five cents a pack), hopeful that Yaz, Pete Runnels, or maybe Frank Malzone would be among the treasures that awaited us.
“Duke, of course, engaged all of us. How was school going? Did we like our teachers? Were we going to the high school football game on Saturday afternoon? Did we see the new fire engine, right there across the street?”
Primmerman was the first person outside the family to work at the store, part-time as a college student after graduating from Bedford High School in 1972. A few years went by, and “I was out looking for jobs in the real world. Duke had had a health scare and he told me, ‘You can buy the store if you want.’ It happened right away.”
That was in 1978, and Stefanelli went to work for the Bedford Public Schools on the custodial staff. Several years later, he recruited Primmerman to join him there and ultimately as his successor as caretaker at St. Michael.
Scaltreto, as a kid across the street on Selfridge Road, remembers how he was “welcomed with open arms by both Duke and Barbara. Their home was my second home for my childhood.” As a college student working part-time on the Lane School custodial staff, they were colleagues.
“His willingness to help everyone and do the work beyond just sweeping and cleaning bathrooms set the example of how you should treat people that I try to follow today,” Scaltreto said. “Duke was always going the extra mile to help. The gratitude and fondness that the Lane School staff had for him was on full display every holiday season with the mountain of gifts he would receive.”
Roni Chester, part of a team that visited Stefanelli during the past few years, remembered one of her first encounters. One of her boys was a third grader at Lane School and “it was picture day and he decided he was going to wear a tie. But my husband left for work early, and I have no idea how to tie a tie. So, I said, ‘Don’t worry. We will find Mr. Stefanelli.’ And he took care of it. He was a super, super nice guy.”
Stefanelli retired from the schools about 30 years ago and became the caretaker at St. Michael’s. Marks said he was Father Mark Sheehan’s “right-hand man” for more than 20 years.
“Duke had a very kind and generous heart, and we did a lot of work together helping families in need,” Marks said. “We would do clothing and food drives, and he would help local families, or bring stuff into two churches in Boston, where there was a lot of poverty. Sometimes he would pick up a dishwasher or a refrigerator. And he would always say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”
“He was a wonderful person, a man of faith,” said Msgr. William Cuddy, who served as administrator at the church from 2014 to 2019. “He was a selfless servant.”
“He got the church open by six in the morning and then [would] go out for breakfast – coffee and doughnuts and the Herald – and come back, do some sweeping, empty the trash, talk to the office staff, go home for lunch, and come back again. The parish was his center of focus. In his late 80s, he was moving stuff around like he was 40 years old,” the monsignor related.
Marks said Stefanelli, who retired from church custodial work in 2020, “loved his family and St. Michael’s Church and the Bedford community.”
He spent time visiting friends and contemporaries in their homes and later in nursing homes. “I remember him saying once, ‘Pat, I’m the only one left,’” she said. “He was the face of God to so many people.” She said he was a regular at the 7 a.m. Mass, handling collections, helping seat worshipers.
Primmerman said he was part of a group that visited his old friend every month, as recently as mid-December. “We always had so many laughs.” A group of friends joined Stefanelli for his 95th birthday in September.
“He was one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known,” Primmerman said.
“You’re lucky if you meet a couple of people in your life like that.” Marks added, “We can take a lesson today on how to live your life and how to treat your fellow man. The world would be a much better place.” Scaltreto said, “I will miss him dearly but remember all the fun times we had together and the lessons learned.”
Dupont observed, “In a world now where the corner store no longer exists, and those conversations are extinct, having those tiny connections with Duke remains a joy. It was a blessing to know him, his smile and his humor, his energy of being, and, above all, his kindness.”