Within The Brothers of Mercy Trier Woods independent living apartments, there are several residents who have lived there around 20 years. One of these residents is a gregarious 98-year-old U.S. Navy Veteran named Ben Madonia who was married to Mary Grace for 69 years.
For 19 years, he and his wife, Mary Grace, lived eight months of the year near Hollywood Beach, Florida where they fronted a 10-member swing band called the Beachcombers that played at the beach theater all afternoon two days a week. He fondly recalls those fun-filled sessions with the band and the crowd on the boardwalk.
They had to stop playing when Mary Grace became ill on their last trip home. She lived in the Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation Center for 17 months and passed away on March 19, 2019 on the feast day of St. Joseph.
Ben is a proud Western New York and loves his alma mater, St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute. During the pandemic, he wrote a feature about his time there and it was published in the school’s alumni magazine. His article was titled “A Tribute to My Alma Mater 78 Years Later: It All Started Here.”
As a youth, he attended Mt. St. Joseph’s Elementary School in Agassiz Circle, which later became the former Medaille University. “I took lessons at the Wurlitzer store on Main Street in Buffalo, and they gave me a horn to get started in 1939.”
He recalls fondly performing with the St. Joseph’s Band. “We had a swing band, and that was my main interest in school. Our senior year, they put on a show at Kleinhans Music Hall with the band and the glee club,” he said. “I directed the swing band, and the professor gave me the baton and I conducted a song I arranged.”
Another great chapter in Ben’s life was his time with legendary singer and actor, Frank Sinatra. “My father knew Frank’s father from Hoboken, New Jersey. One day the phone rang and the voice says, ‘Hello, this is Frank Sinatra.’ It didn’t mean anything to me then,” he recalled. “We go down to the Ford Hotel and pick him up. He was tired from traveling, so he was just elated to be in a home. After each show, he would come over for dinner and there were times he brought home Tommy Dorsey, Harry James and some saxophone players.”
Frank was about 10 years older than Ben and had a great influence on him. They shared many visits together when he was a teenager. He once visited Frank on the set of one of his movies and collected autographs from famous singers and actors such as Pearl Bailey, Cecil B. Demille and Mary Hatcher. He has a program from the Romulus Club’s scholarship fund show held at Kleinhans on April 9, 1951 that Frank signed.
When he was 19, World War II was still going on in the Pacific. He entered the Navy, went through basic training and was assigned to the U.S.S. Leary Destroyer. “I missed the commissioning because I was still in electrician’s mate school at Sampson Naval Training Station, but I met up with the ship in Norfolk, Virginia,” he recalled.
He was stationed throughout the South Pacific toward the end of the war, and he went to Guam, China, Japan and others countries. One of his duties included experimenting with different radar techniques to detect enemy ships in advance of U.S. fleets. When asked what country he liked the most of the all ones he saw, he replied, “This country is the best!”
After his service in the war, Ben embarked on a long career as an electrical contractor with his family business. He remained a talented tenor saxophone player for most of his life.
Ben is extremely proud of the careers and achievements of his sons, grandchildren and great grandchildren. As he approaches 20 years of living at Trier Woods, he is very pleased to be an active member of the independent living community, attending a variety of resident activities, meetings and dinners.
“The beautiful park-like setting was an easy decision to make when we moved here 19 years ago,” Ben said. “I enjoy the classes, dinner parties and socials here with the other residents. I absolutely must say thank you to The Brothers of Mercy for having the foresight to build this great Wellness Campus that now has more than 500 residents.”