Two of Amsterdam’s Duchessi brothers may be sparring in heaven.
In 1935, much to his mother’s chagrin, Peter Duchessi started boxing and became the first member of the family to use the nickname Duke. He was proud that he was able to go six rounds against future champ Sugar Ray Robinson. He fought 71 fights and had 57 victories, 15 of them knockouts.
Peter’s younger brother, John Duchessi, Sr., also became a boxer, winning 16 of 17 fights. John Senior, known as Duke the Dropper, slugged his way to a decision over Don Trott of Saratoga Springs in a pioneer televised boxing match on WRGB in Schenectady in 1942.
William, yet another Duchessi brother, became a local, then national, officer of the union that represented Amsterdam’s carpet mill workers, the Textile Workers Union of America.
John Senior was badly wounded in the battle of Monte Cassino in World War II and became national commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart in the 1970s. His son, John Duchessi Jr., served as fire chief and then mayor of Amsterdam for two terms.
John Senior died in 2008. Peter passed away last month, 11 days shy of what would have been his 100th birthday.
Peter Duchessi was born in 1917, the son of Mariano and Maria Padovani Duchessi. The family at first lived among many Italian-Americans on the South Side of Amsterdam. They moved across the river to Knollwood Avenue on Henrietta Heights when he was 11. They were one of the few Italian families in that neighborhood.
Times were tough in the Depression and young Duchessi left school to work mowing lawns for the wealthy on nearby Guy Park Avenue for 25 cents each. He sold flowers and apples outside a silk mill.
Peter worked long hours for $5 a week at Home Dairy Cafeteria and then at Bigelow Sanford Carpet in Amsterdam at the end of the Depression. Not able to serve in the military because of injuries from an auto accident, he found work at American Locomotive in Schenectady welding plates for gun carriers.
He married Madeline Lanzi of Amsterdam’s famous South Side restaurant family. Peter was laid off by Alco at war’s end. With help from his wife’s uncle, Ralph Marotta, he started Duchessi’s Importing Company, located at 128 East Main St.
His store was among the first in the area to stock imported olive oil, pasta, cheeses, vegetables and fruits from Italy and elsewhere, even oranges from Israel.
Duchessi’s Importing Company was such an important part of downtown in the late 1940s that Peter started a summer fashion trend.
He was pictured in the local paper wearing shorts as he tended to peaches and cantaloupes in bins in front of his store. The caption read, “Keep cool at Duchessi’s.” H. Mortan Guttenberg of Mortan’s men’s store thanked Duchessi for helping start a run on men’s shorts.
Duchessi’s was the last store to close when downtown was torn down to make way for the shopping mall that was built in the 1970s. Duchessi bought a store on Lincoln Avenue on Market Hill and moved his importing company there until he closed it in 1981.
He later worked at Price Chopper where he introduced the concept of the custom-cut meat department. He retired in 1982, but continued to demonstrate new food products at Price Chopper on Route 30 in Amsterdam.
Peter is survived by his wife, Madeline. He also leaves two children, Linda Meenan and Peter Duchessi; two grandchildren; a sister, Emy Raccuia of Syracuse and nieces and nephews.
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]