hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

March 20, 2014

Ernie DiBurro helps keep city strong

By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — It isn’t very often I get to applaud a city servant for a job well done.

In this case, Ernie DiBurro would rather be sitting in a dentist’s chair getting a root canal than having some columnist echo his accolades. Humility is his trademark and he’d rather keep it that way.

But when I heard that once again he stepped forward to donate $115,000 for a refurbished fitness center at Haverhill High, how can you keep that quiet?

All it took was one look during a basketball game and DiBurro was convinced.

“You don’t have to give me a sales pitch,” he told Athletic Director Tom O’Brien.

You could also acknowledge the 50 years he’s been in business at Academy Lanes, giving people all over the city, state and New England a sound recreational center. I enjoy bowling there as much as I do at two other centers, Pilgrim Lanes and St. Joseph’s Bowling Center. We’re lucky to have three outlets in the city.

But what he’s done to promote handicapped awareness for children with disabilities cannot go unnoticed. The welcome mat is always out in front of his door.

The new contribution of $115,000 is meant to keep Haverhill sports competitive and give our athletes a way to represent our city under the best conditions possible.

DiBurro, an able and willing benefactor, has answered other calls.

It wasn’t that long ago that he dished out $100,000 to create a scholarship for athletes going on to study business in college.

If that wasn’t enough, he trumped that figure with another $100,000 to revamp the sports field across from the high school, from which he graduated in 1952. I’d like to think of him as a perpetual fountain of thrift that never stops giving, especially when it’s destined to give this city a shot in the arm.

All this led to another $50,000 being raised through a snowball effect which financed ambient lighting around the high school track and additional landscaping.

“People ask me how we’re doing all this and I tell them it’s because of Ernie DiBurro’s generosity,” says School Superintendent Jim Scully.

I remember once approaching Ernie to be a sponsor for our Armenian Youth Olympics. Besides putting an advertisement in the ad book, he opened the door to his bowling lanes and offered complimentary bowling.

When his son Teddy wrestled for Haverhill High and later coached the team, Ernie was a true advocate of the sport, helping the squad to secure its needs and encouraging others to pursue the sport.

Wrestling faced some difficult times in those days with numbers and worn facilities. The DiBurros took matters into their own hands and turned the sport into an arena of respectability.

All well and good certainly, but not enough, as Ernie continued with his humanitarian ways. Nothing was more near and dear to him than that Alzheimer’s Clinic he helped finance and administer next to the city’s hospital when it was the Hale.

It turned into a more significant role than his business. People with advanced stages of Alzheimer’s came here to live with dignity and get the treatment they rightfully deserved.

More than once, I saw Ernie walk through those doors and lend a compassionate hand to residents of the facility. I sat with him for one story after another, often with a tear in his eye and a dollar out of his wallet when the going got tough.

That’s when Ernie got tougher to keep the place solvent, keeping the staff mobile and secure, not to mention the infrastructure, which was always under bureaucratic scrutiny. The day it closed, you may well have stuck DiBurro into an abyss.

One by one, they took the patients to other nursing homes throughout the city, relinquishing the specialized care they were receiving for their illness. With each case, it became a personal setback for this man.

Now, for the school he and his family attended and the city that has been so good to him, he wants to return the favor in large increments. He’s putting his money to better use than a Florida land investment.

People are quick to complain about Haverhill’s deficiencies. But they do nothing to improve its condition.

“He sits on civic panels, serves on committees and remains the go-to guy when you want to get something done in Haverhill,” state Rep. Brian Dempsey says of DiBurro

We owe the man a “debt” of gratitude. Knowing Ernie, he’d likely pay that off, too.

Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.