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July 7, 2015

Through the looking glass: a friendship for the ages

A bouquet of balloons hung above an empty table in a Northeast Philadelphia union hall full of construction workers. A sign reserved the table for “Friends of Fonzie.”

The workers, known to occasionally get into heated arguments, were conducting the routine business of reading expense reports and voting on issues with “ayes” or “nays.”

Suddenly they grew silent and just smiled: Alfonso “Fonzie” Soglia, 4, and his parents had arrived.

The Glaziers Union Local 252 had invited the boy as guest of honor at this monthly closed-door gathering June 17 at Southampton and Townsend roads.

The workers met Fonzie in a chance encounter at a construction site. The relationships blossomed into friendships.

Still, many of them did not know the profound impact they had made on a little boy’s life.

And Fonzie’s parents, Lindsay Raymond and Gerry Soglia, had no clue how much their young son had affected a tight-knit group of construction workers.

30th and Chestnut

It all began last September, when crews were relocating fences and reopening the sidewalk to pedestrians around the FMC Tower construction project at Cira Centre South, at 30th and Chestnut streets.

Fonzie, then 3, and his mother now had a more direct route to her secretarial job and his preschool.

“I said, ‘Look, Fonz, we can go down this side again,’ ” Raymond recalled recently.

In addition to the shorter distance, it was important to her to return to a routine, because Fonzie is autistic.

“He likes for things to be in order,” Raymond said. “Last week he was eating some Pez and he sorted them all out and ate them by color.”

The Glaziers’ job is, among other things, to install the glass on buildings. Each morning they meet to set the day’s agenda and get their tools out of a large box. The box just happened to be near the walkway that Fonzie used.

“A couple of the guys were standing near their storage box, and when we walked by them they made a fuss over Fonzie,” Raymond said. “I don’t know what he saw in them . . . but he just loved” the interaction.

Fonzie especially connected with Pat Carroll, who sat on the ground giving him high-fives.

“He just got on his level, and Fonzie just loved that,” Raymond said.

Carroll introduced himself to Fonzie as Mr. Peabody.

“I talk to everybody, but kids get special attention as long as their parents are OK with it,” Carroll recalled. “[Sometimes] they run the other way, though.”

His co-workers could not resist commenting on that. “The majority of the time they run away,” joked Fred Mari, the elder statesman of the crew.

Another pal added: “Pat says ‘hi’ to a thousand people a day, and finally one said ‘hi’ back.”

Soon, each day brought a new conversation, and everyone looked forward to it.

“Fonzie would just ask, ‘Mom, are the Glaziers going to be there today?’ And I’d say, ‘I hope so.’ “

Meanwhile, for this group of guys, just having somebody not look down on them was a welcome change.

“We don’t wear the cleanest clothes,” said Paul “Goose” Walters.

Tim Crowther, a union representative with District Council 21, the umbrella organization that includes the Glaziers local, said the workers often face bad reactions.

“You have this stereotype about you as a construction worker, that you’re a bully or that you’re a mean guy or you’re rough and tough,” Crowther said. “But what a lot of people forget is . . . we’re the [Little League] coaches, we volunteer down at the playgrounds, we’re the Boy Scout leaders and the Cub Scout leaders.”

“I definitely judged them that first day,” Raymond herself admitted. “But . . . they were all about him.”

In fact, Fonzie’s enthusiasm gave them a boost each day.

“This winter was obviously bad,” Carroll said. “We’re out there getting ready and you’re like, ‘I can’t feel my fingers. Oh, there’s Fonzie. All right, cool,’ and he’s out there bopping down the street, shivering, shaking, and he gives you a high-five and I’m like, ‘All right, this ain’t that bad now.’ “

“It became a ritual,” Fred Mari said. “We were like, ‘Hurry up, where’s Fonzie?’ I’m not sure who was getting more out of it – us or him.”

Raymond thinks she knows the answer.

Fonzie “got so much out of it because they never judged him, never,” his mother said.

It affected his therapy, too. “He never opened up to strangers like this before,” Raymond said. His therapist started to ask about the interaction and to build on that. “He’s definitely better with adults now.”

Fonzie came up with nicknames for some of the guys. Carroll, who was already known as Mr. Peabody, told Fonzie to say hi to Big Head, who is actually Jim Deamer. Lenny Dopkin became Renny. Kyle “Apple Pile” Seidelmann was born. Goose Walters rounded out the lineup.

Some of the fellows didn’t get nicknames. But Mari, A.J. Hedgepeth, Antin Galaj and others said that was all right, too.

“I’m just Antin,” Galaj said, with a shrug.

“Sometimes A.J. was ‘the guy in the red shirt,’ ” Mari said, laughing.

Nicknames and hockey

What had begun as an amusing encounter between construction workers and a little kid had morphed into something deeper – for them and for him.

The boy saw past their dirty clothes. They, in turn, just saw a regular kid.

Soon the boy wasn’t only using the nicknames at the morning meetings. “Fonzie started adding the guys to his bedtime prayers: ‘Good night, Peabody. Good night, Big Head,’ ” Raymond said.

The crew pitched in and got Fonzie a Christmas present. Fonzie and his mom gave the guys a card and candy canes.

One of the workers – no one will admit who (circumstantial evidence indicated it was Mr. Peabody) – sneaked into the nearby Old Nelson Food Co. deli and wrote all of the nicknames, including Fonzie’s, on the Christmas stockings hanging in the window.

Then a string of coincidences popped up. It turns out that Mr. Peabody and Fonzie have the same birthday. The relationship even cooled a heated rivalry in an ice-hockey beer league in Northeast Philly.

“I asked the guys, ‘Do you know the Glaziers who play hockey [at the Northeast Skate Zone]?’ ” Raymond recalled. “And they were like, ‘Uhh, yeah, that’s us.’ And I said, ‘Oh my God, you’re playing against his father.’ “

Fonzie’s dad plays for the Dirty Birds. That made Mr. Peabody a bit nervous.

“I started replaying all of our games against them in my head,” said Carroll, who admitted he had an altercation with a Dirty Bird or two and hoped it wasn’t Fonzie’s dad. “I was like, ‘What’s his jersey number?’ but it wasn’t him. Thank God.”

Either way, all was forgiven as Gerry Soglia smoothed things over with his Dirty Bird teammates.

“I told them all, ‘These guys are really good to my kid,’ ” Soglia said.

The teams played each other again on the birthday shared by Fonzie and Mr. Peabody.

During this time, the Glaziers never realized that Fonzie was autistic. Most of them found out when Raymond posted a thank-you note on her Facebook page.

Then Goose Walters bought “Autism Awareness” stickers and the hockey team put them on their helmets.

Raymond hopes that the friendships will be something that Fonzie can draw upon as he matures. “I want him to get a job someday, to go to the prom, to get married . . . have kids,” she said.

She fights “like a crazy woman” for what she feels Fonzie deserves. Autism services in Philadelphia change at age 3, and the Soglia family noticed a difference.

“They definitely need more funding [for] after age 3,” Raymond explained. “But luckily I met people [in the pre-3 version] who help me find more” opportunities for help.

An honor bestowed

Even before he saw the balloons, Fonzie yelled out, “This is so cool!”

As each of his union friends arrived and parked, Fonzie ran toward them and walked them the rest of the way into the building.

Inside, his buddies presented him with a glass plaque and some union swag.

The Glaziers’ hockey squad gave Fonzie a jersey with the number 1 on it because they consider him their No. 1 fan – something that Fonzie’s dad has come to accept. They also retired the number in his honor.

Dressed in a plaid shirt, khaki shorts and sneakers, Fonzie yelled, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” The union members applauded and cheered.

For Galaj, a father of two boys, ages 5 and 7, it was amazing that another boy would look up to him and his co-workers.

“We’re just regular guys who just wanted to say ‘hello’ to him,” he said. “It just blows my mind.”

Raymond said the progress Fonzie made in the last year astounds her.

When she asked Fonzie about the meeting, his response surprised her.

“I asked him, ‘What was your favorite part [of the party]?’ “

“Normally he would answer generally and say, ‘All of it,’ ” she said. “But he said it was ‘when everybody was clapping and cheering for me.’ “

She can’t get over the fact that the workers did so much for her son.

“I’m still overwhelmed,” she said. “I can’t believe any of it.”

The Glaziers feel the same way.

“You don’t realize what saying ‘hi’ to somebody can really do,” said Goose.

Raymond said that she often thinks back to the day when the fence came down.

“I’m so glad I walked that way,” she said. “I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it.”

For Fonzie and the Glaziers, that day marked the beginning of a permanent relationship:

At the union meeting, they made him a life member of Local 252.

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