In the late 1800s, Angelina’s paternal grandfather, Charlie Giovino, and his brother left their small village of Campofranco, Italy, in the mountains of Sicily to find better lives for themselves and their families. The pair arrived through Ellis Island in New York City where they remained for five years and worked on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. The brothers saved money and sent for more family members, including Angelina’s grandmother and her father.
Angelina’s father’s family moved to the Birmingham area and joined other members of the Italian community in Pratt City, a busy trade center, where they lived above a store. They later moved to Avondale where the family ran a shoe shop and a small grocery store. Angelina’s father married Rosalie Messina, who grew up in the Republic mining community, and their multigenerational family, including Angelina, her sister, and two brothers, continued to live in Avondale.
In the mid-60s Angelina’s father and his brother Sam, who was born in the United States and had never been to Italy or seen his sister who remained there when the rest of the family moved, began dreaming of a trip home. She enthusiastically joined in the planning process as she had always hoped to make this trip and did not want to miss out on the chance to take it with her father. However, before the dream could be made into reality, her father died in 1968 and her uncle developed health problems which precluded his ability to make the long journey.
Angelina refused to give up the dream, and in the process of turning 40, she began to make plans to travel by herself to Italy to find her people, making her the first in her family to return. Not discouraged by the fact that her job in the Pizitz frame shop offered no extra income for this trip, she diligently began reading and researching ways to make it happen. A magazine advertisement promoting seeing Europe by car caught her attention. Inspired by the independence a car would offer her, Angelina devised a plan to buy a red Volkswagen fastback directly from the factory in Munich, Germany.
The owner of the frame shop where she worked, Harry Camenshine, made arrangements for Angelina to see a banker he knew. Armed with her heartfelt determination and her unfailing work ethic, Angelina had no trouble convincing the banker to loan her the money for the car as well as the trip. Never having made a loan for a car outside the country, the banker sent the payment for the car to Germany and told Angelina they would take care of the loan repayment paperwork when she returned from her trip.
Off to Italy
The Camenshines allowed Angelina to train her temporary replacement and took care of special details including buying her “the most beautiful gold after-five dress,” as well as other items. Her family sent her off to Munich from the Birmingham airport on May 7, 1970. The Volkswagen representative who greeted her at the airport took her to pick up her car at the factory and she explained, “I saw my little red bug and I just fell in love with it.” The representative also made arrangements for Angelina to get a German driver’s license and insurance. When she admitted she had never driven a stick shift, he even smiled while he patiently gave her a short stick shift driving lesson in the factory parking lot.
Equipped with her “little map” and her guidebook, Frommer’s “Europe on $25 a Day,” Angelina took off on her 45-day, five-country adventure. After seeing several landmarks around Munich and determined to find the Dachau Concentration Memorial Site, she asked several English-speaking locals for directions. But they acted as if they did not know what she was talking about. Ultimately, a very young man at a gas station helped her.
At the time of Angelina’s visit, the concentration camp barracks were torn down but the ovens and the gas chambers remained. Forty years later, her emotions right on the surface, and without hesitation, Angelina recalled, “You could smell the odor. It was still there.” Also touched by the non-denominational church later built on the grounds for quiet meditation and the museum, she added, “It was a great experience for me to see this so I could put it in my head and never forget what the Nazis did.”
Angelina found Switzerland “the most beautiful country,” friendly, clean, and refreshing. Eager to visit the locations for the filming of The Sound of Music in Austria, she started her journey over the Alps without any thought as to the significance of this task. But she took great pleasure in laughing at herself as she described being unable to get her car in gear at a stop sign at the top of a hill during this part of her trip. She merely put her brakes on, waved down a passerby and asked him, “Will you please drive my car to the top of this hill because I can’t shift the gears?” Not surprisingly, the stranger pleasantly helped the lovely, friendly American woman driving the bright red Volkswagen with German tags. Over and over Angelina commented, “The people were so nice to me.”
Shortly thereafter Angelina met an Austrian family in which the father was concerned about her safety driving on the winding roads where she noted, “If you don’t drive 100, you better get off the road.” So he invited her to follow his vehicle into Austria and they stopped in a small village for the night where he bought her dinner in the dining room of the charming hotel he recommended. With a wistful tone in her voice, Angelina described opening the shutters in her room to a “magnificent view of the snow-covered mountains” and enjoying coffee, cookies, and apples brought to her by the hotel’s owner.
In the Salzburg area, Angelina discovered the Mondsee Cathedral where the wedding in The Sound of Music was filmed, the Mirabell Gardens where Maria and the children danced around the statue of Pegasus and sang “Do-Re-Mi,” and St. Peter’s Graveyard where the Von Trapp family barely escaped being seen and caught by the Nazis. Observing that this movie holds a special place in her heart, Angelina added, “It was the thrill of my life.”
Making her way on to Italy, Angelina paused for a few days in Venice, “a magnificent city” which also offered “Desserts, food…you would just go crazy going into those bakeries.” Rome was her next stop and she described it as “the most magnificent place in this whole world” as it spoke deeply to her religious convictions. She found the Vatican “something to see,” similar to walking into a huge football stadium and she met the pope. The ancient catacombs intrigued and haunted her while Michelangelo’s four year project on the Sistine Chapel ceiling took her breath away.
Angelina enjoyed telling the story behind the Scala Sancta, the Holy Staircase, which Jesus purportedly walked up to his trial before Pontius Pilate. Visitors are not allowed to walk up the 28 marble steps, they must crawl up them. The steps are covered in wood with holes cut above marks said to be Jesus’ blood.
Continuing her journey, Angelina drove all the way to the tip of the boot of Italy where her car was ferried to Messina on the island of Sicily. She drove into the mountains toward Campofranco until the tiny road ended and she was forced to decide whether to turn right or left. Angelina parked her car and after a man gave her directions, he asked her if she was a Giovino. When she responded that she was, he said he would take her to her family since he knew them.
When Angelina arrived at the home of her father’s sister, who did not know she was coming, the family immediately knew who she was and greeted her with eager, emotional hugs, kisses, smiles, and tears. Since her mother’s family lived in the same village, word of her arrival spread instantaneously and Angelina remembered, “The whole village was soon running towards me.”
This feeling of incredible connection to most of the people she met in Campofranco amazed, but did not overwhelm Angelina. When she had dinner the first night with members of her mother’s family, she recalled, “I could not believe how much these men looked like my mother’s brothers…I would have known them anywhere.”
Angelina spent her two weeks on Sicily reveling in the pleasures of getting to know her family whose roots in Campofranco reach back more than five hundred years. Cousins accompanied her to Pompeii where her memories focused on the extremely advanced nature of that ancient civilization. In Palermo, a town on the Mediterranean Sea, they visited a cave on the side of a mountain which had formerly been a pirate hideout but had been converted into a church where a wedding was taking place.
When her visit with her family in Sicily ended, Angelina continued her journey back up the boot to Florence and Milan and then back down to Rome to leave her car to be shipped and to fly home. She continued to communicate with her aunt and cousins, often taking an entire day to write letters in Italian using her Italian dictionary.
A few years later, Angelina was rewarded for her faithful efforts when her 83 year old aunt reciprocated and came to the United States, accompanied by her grandson, to meet and visit with her American family for about a month. Sightseeing highlights included a trip to the United States Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville and Vulcan in Birmingham, a special visit since a family member had worked on building his pedestal.
Angelina’s trip also acted as a catalyst for a significant event in another family. She met two sisters in Italy who were searching for information about their brother whom they had lost contact with many years before. Angelina brought their information back with her and contacted Nina Miglionico, an old friend and neighbor in Avondale. Ms. Miglionico was a tireless civic leader and a very well-respected attorney and pioneer for women and civil rights who served on the Birmingham City Council from 1963 until 1981 and was its first woman president. She had represented the Italian sisters’ brother and was able to at least give them closure as he had died and left them his estate.
More than 40 years later, with her family ties in Italy stronger than ever, Angelina is working on another dream. Hoping to return to Italy in the spring, she maintains diligent contact with her family there. As she explained from her heart, “I want to go back because my roots are very, very, deep in Italy…It is the country I love because my people come from there … America is my home, but our roots are in Italy.”
A full life at home
Her daring solo trip abroad may have prepared Angelina for the next big step in her life. Shortly after her return she met Jerry Gossett, a coal miner who grew up in Dora and loved to dance. Describing him as the “love of my life,” they married, moved to Jasper, and were together for 34 years before his death eight years ago.
Commuting to Birmingham in her “little red bug,” Angelina continued to work for the Camenshines in the Pizitz frame shop after she and Jerry married. But in 1972, she opened her own shop in Jasper with the help and support of her former employers. For 28 years, Angelina gathered customers who became family and trusted her ability as they left pieces to be framed on her counter and their only instructions were “Frame it.” She helped them decorate their homes for holidays and special occasions and they brought her soup, cakes, and pies. In 2000, she closed her shop because she had to care for Jerry, who had severe lung disease.
In addition to owning her own business and taking care of her family, Angelina has spent much of her life in service to others. She and Jerry organized the Jasper Elks Lodge in 1977 and, in 1998, she became the first female Exalted Ruler in the country. Active in veteran recognition throughout the state, Angelina has prepared and mailed more than 2,000 certificates of appreciation all over the world.
As a board member for the Tri-County Agency for Intellectual Disabilities, Angelina plans and raises money for meals and other events for these individuals with joy and a genuine concern for their well-being. Several years ago she raised $35,000 to help fund the statue in front of the Jasper Police Department. Angelina is also an important part of the heart, soul, and missions of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.
More than 40 years after her incredible solo adventure, Angelina Giovino Gossett has not slowed down at all. She continues to energetically thrive on a deep understanding of and devotion to family, as well as unselfish service to others, always commanding a life well lived and worthy of future adventures.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890