Tiny Pa. borough of Roseto gets 2nd brush with fame

by Tom Coombe

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)

11 February 2009


EASTON, Pa. - For the second time in 30 years, the tiny Slate Belt borough of Roseto is getting national attention.

The new book “Outliers,” which has been No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list for the last few weeks, uses the story of Roseto as its introduction.

Author Malcolm Gladwell - who wrote the previous best-sellers “Blink” and “The Tipping Point” - said he needed a community that exemplifies part of the thesis of “Outliers,” that sometimes the place makes people special.

“I needed an illustration for the idea of my book,” Gladwell said, speaking on the phone from New York City. “Immediately, Roseto came to mind.”

In the book, Gladwell argues that most people think about success the wrong way. Of course, people like Bill Gates, the Beatles and Robert Oppenheimer - to pick some of the examples from “Outliers” - had talent and drive. But Gladwell says there are things in people’s backgrounds - when and where they were born, whom they were born to - that can greatly influence success.

How does Roseto fit in? It goes back to “The Roseto Story,” a book published in 1979 about the unusually healthy hearts of its residents.

Roseto, a community of fewer than 1,700 people, was founded by Italian immigrants who named their new home for their former village. It’s one of the most Italian communities in the United States.

But that’s not the only thing that makes it unique. For a time, it was the town where seemingly nobody ever had a heart attack. Well, maybe some people in Roseto had heart problems, but the rates there were much, much lower than nearby communities such as Bangor and Nazareth.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, researchers Stewart Wolf and John Bruhn - who would later write “The Roseto Story” - set out to solve this mystery. They found that almost no one under 55 died from heart attacks or showed signs of heart disease. For people over 65, the death rate for heart attacks was half the rate of the rest of the country.

Wolf and Bruhn offered this theory: Rosetans looked out for each other. Their eating habits weren’t that different from their neighbors, but they lived a stress-free, Old World lifestyle, which made for healthy hearts.

“The Rosetans were healthy because of where they were from,” Gladwell writes, “because of the world they had created for themselves in their tiny little town in the hills.”

Ralph Stampone, 81, said his family was one of the many involved in the health study. Wolf visited the Stampone family restaurant, Tony’s Cafe on Garibaldi Avenue.

“He wanted to know what we were eating,” Stampone said. (For some reason, people in Roseto tend to talk about the “Wolf study,” even though there are two names on it.)

“A lot of lard, a lot of bread,” Stampone continued. It wasn’t the food. It was the people eating it.

“What he found was happiness ... togetherness,” Stampone recalled.

Stampone, like many Roseto residents, hadn’t heard of - let alone read - “Outliers.”

At Ruggiero’s Market - a corner store that serves as a sort of time capsule of the old Roseto - shoppers weren’t aware of the book. Co-owner Elena Ruggiero said she was: She’d heard about “Outliers” from customer Nathan Kanofsky.

Kanofsky hadn’t yet read all of “Outliers,” but had gotten through enough of it to have seen the introduction.

“That part stuck out like a sore thumb,” he said.

Still, most native Rosetans seem unmoved by their brush with fame in Gladwell’s book. Many of them stand by Wolf’s basic thesis: Rosetans are happy, healthy and neighborly.

True, Wolf later did a follow-up that showed that people in Roseto got less healthy as traditions faded. But the signs of the old Roseto still persist, said resident Joanne Viglione.

She belongs to “Sodality,” a Catholic women’s organization, and many of its members are in their 70s and 80s.

“They’re quite healthy. We have one woman who’s been a member for 68 years,” Viglione said as she shopped in Ruggiero’s Market.

It was the day before a winter storm was predicted to arrive, but Viglione said the armload of groceries she carried had nothing to do with fear of being snowed in.

“I cook every night,” she said. “Don’t forget, we’re Italian.”

Not forgetting that fact is what makes Rosetans outliers, Gladwell said. In many communities, embracing the American dream can mean shedding who you were before you arrived.

“Roseto didn’t,” he said. “They retained what was best and beautiful about them.”

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