Rhinelander collaboration leads to book about an extraordinary life
BY MATT PERSIKE
Special to the Star Journal
Joseph Catalano came to Rhinelander in 2007 with the memories of an extraordinary life, a folder brimming with notes, and a dream to put his wealth of experiences down on paper. Encouraged by his children, he placed an ad in the Star Journal last spring in search of someone in the area to help him write his book and spin his yarns into a cohesive story.
“It’s pretty rare to find work as a writer, so it was pretty unusual to find an offer right here in Rhinelander,” says local writer Michael Skubal. It was Skubal who answered Catalano’s ad. It may be rare to find work writing in a sparsely populated region, and it is certainly rare to stumble across someone whose life is as remarkably worthy of a novel as Catalano’s. However, six months and 240 pages later this unlikely collaboration will soon roll off the presses and hit bookshelves everywhere. The publication of “Mosaic,” the project’s title, is just another in a series of unique opportunities and unlikelihoods that fill the pages of the book and seem to characterize Catalano’s life.
The story begins with a burglary. Two valued mosaics were stolen from Art Termini’s home in the Milwaukee area, where his family had lived for five generations. The pieces are never recovered. Years later a reporter discovers the reclusive Termini hiding from the Mafia in Tuscany, Italy, and approaches him for an interview. Termini, having decided that he wants the story to be told, ultimately gives the reporter permission to publish the story. The fictional burglary serves as the central mystery to the novel and is based on the real-life theft of two works of art from Catalano’s collection—paintings which he purchased from the Vatican.
From that point the reader watches Termini’s life story unravel along with the fictional reporter; an odyssey across the globe that is woven through encounters with unique characters and high-profile acquaintances. The burglary, however, is not the beginning of Catalano’s life.
Much like Termini, Catalano grew up in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. One of six brothers in an Italian family, his was the fifth generation to live in Milwaukee. The family business, a wholesale produce dealer, was opened in 1884, and to this day remains in the family. Catalano found success in a series of entrepreneurial pursuits, and for a time even sold art that he bought directly from the Vatican. He describes his introduction to many officials at the Vatican as, like so many of his stories, the lucky product of circumstance. His wife had won a trip to Italy where a friend of theirs was a well-known Grand Prix driver. His celebrity allowed Catalano and his wife access to some exclusive locations, among which was St. Peter’s Basilica, the center of the Roman Catholic Church. Conversation with a handful of friendly clergymen turned to art, and a partnership of sorts was formed.
Catalano dates the novelization of his stories back to the mid-nineteen-eighties. While living in Milwaukee he befriended a speechwriter for the city’s mayor who, enthralled by the raconteur’s tales, offered to help him write the book. This venture unfortunately did not get very far before running out of steam, but the dream of turning his folder of notes and disjointed written stories into a book never left.
Since that time Catalano has shared his stories with neighbors and acquaintances all over New England and Florida, but he keeps coming back to Wisconsin. The Catalano family’s history in the area is why setting the book in Milwaukee was very important to the author. “The man who was originally going to write the book wanted to set it in New York City,” says Catalano, and it must be admitted that the story does not lack romantic elements that might be characteristic of an east coast tale.
Catalano grew up with knowledge of organized crime, had a relative run afoul of the Balistrieri family, and met Mafia Dons in Sicily. He recounts a Middle-Eastern vacation after which the Crown Prince of Afghanistan personally packed Catalano’s bags into their cab, and his wife’s service on a board of economic advisors gave him the opportunity to roam the White House grounds and meet former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. He has a photograph of his first grandson in the arms of President Carter, and says the George Bush Sr. is one of the nicest people he’s ever met. Still, aside from perhaps a shared affinity for an occasional martini, Art Termini is not portrayed as James Bond, but as a globetrotting entrepreneur who took advantage of many unlikely opportunities.
“Joe’s a character,” says Skubal. “One time we stopped for gas, and in the few minutes it took to fill up he was in the parking lot, talking to people and handing out his business cards…he’s been a lot of fun to work with.” Catalano has never been shy about his extraordinary adventures. His longtime practice telling and retelling his stories surely came in handy when he decided to write them.
Admitting that the authors allowed themselves some artistic license in order to better tie the stories together, Skubal says, “ninety percent of the book is real.” Catalano adds that although the real people who inspired the characters would recognize themselves in the book, “we changed the names to protect the innocent and the guilty.”
In accordance with the authors’ desire to remain local, they feel fortunate to have found a publishing house in Milwaukee that jumped at the opportunity to print Mosaic. The book will be available as an e-book in the next week and is likely to land on bookshelves in November. Catalano is thrilled with the result, going as far as to call his co-author “a brilliant writer,” but Skubal is also excited for the release. “I think it’s set up uniquely, and with Joe’s hilarious stories…it’s a good mystery. We managed to pull it off.”
Joseph Catalano is an uncommonly well-travelled man with the unlikely luck of finding a writing partner who also became a friend, followed by the rare fortune of finding a publisher that was not only willing, but eager to promote his story. In many ways Catalano’s life has been uncommon as a result of the unlikely, but it is nice to be reminded that even in a small community, extraordinary stories may not be as rare as we think.