RIP, Providence's Sal Laterra: Part of a quiet immigrant family's success story

Sal Laterra, for nearly 50 years a familiar presence at Paramount Cleansers, on Union Street, in Providence, died unexpectedly at Massachusetts General Hospital on May 3. He had celebrated his 90th birthday on the preceding Wednesday.

Born in Providence on April; 27, 1926, he was a son of Joseph and Elisabetta (Autiello) Laterra, immigrants, respectively, from Sicily andsouthern mainland Italy. He attended Mount Pleasant High School, but left school when he was 17 to join the Marines in World War II began. As a member of the Third Marine Division, he participated in the freeing of Guam from the Japanese, and his unit was in China awaiting orders to invade Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped.

Proud Marine though he was, he happily returned home to Providence and soon joined his father in the dry-cleaning and tailoring business that Joseph Laterra had opened 20 years earlier at the suggestion of then Providence Journal editor and later publisher/editor Sevellon Brown. For the next 40 years, Sal Laterra would be a familiar presence on Union Street, cleaning and tailoring clothes for Providence mayors and Rhode Island governors, Brown and RISD professors and Providence Journal reporters and editors.

At the end of each day, by pre-arrangement, he would hurry out into Union Street with a smile and a wave, with an armful of clothes that had been tailored or cleaned, and hand them out quickly to patrons who slowed down in their cars. At the death of his father, in 1987, he inherited the shop and it continued in business until his own retirement, in 1995. By then his son, John, was well embarked on his career as a neurologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore (he was named one of the nation’s top neuro-oncologists by Newsweek earlier this year), and his daughter, Elizabeth, was in a post with the National Security Agency. He was ready, he said, to spend more time with his wife, Alda (Pontarelli) Laterra, and in the garden he had planted beside his Naples Avenue, Providence, house. He had bought the lot, he said, not only so  that he and his family could enjoy it, but for the enjoyment of neighbors who had lots too small to have gardens. Having grown up in a six-story Providence tenement with no land around it, he said, he knew how you could long for a garden.

Always an outdoorsman, he also hoped to spend more time bicycling, skiing and mountain climbing. He was always proud of having skiied France’s Chamonix glacier and climbed Maine’s Mount Katahdin, and peaks in the White Mountains with the late Providence Journal art critic Bradford F. Swan and the late Journal photographer Andtrew Dickerman. In retirement, he bicycled with enthusiasm, joining the Narragansett Bay Wheelmen. In 1985, when he was 58, he had been featured on the Sunday Journal’s Health and Fitness insert as a prime example of a healthy Rhode Island outdoorsman. (It was not the first time that he had been featured on a Sunday Journal supplement cover. In 1967, his picture had been on the Rhode Islander cover when Paramount Cleansers itself was the subject of a story on the tailoring business.)

Although his wife died soon after his retirement, he continued to tend the garden they had both so enjoyed, and to travel as they had traveled together. He revisited the China he had known as a young Marine, and went on in Asia to visit Thailand and Vietnam. He also went to Australia and New Zealand, Mexico, Argentina and Chile, France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, the Azores, Italy, Sicily, Turkey, England and Scotland, and crossed both the United States and Canada by train. On his travels, he perfected his photography -- a talent  that he had helped develop in the Providence Journal darkroom. As a memorial to his wife, he established a children’s book fund at the Providence Community Library on Academy Avenue.

He is survived by his daughter, Elizabeth Hobbins of Laurel, Md., his son, John Laterra, M.D., Ph.D., of Baltimore, and three grandchildren, Catherine Hobbins of Columbia, Md.; Sarah Yusko of Westminster, Colo., and Anne Laterra of Atlanta  and a brother, Joseph Laterra of Wickford. He was predeceased  by his wife and two sisters, Adeline McGuirk and Lucy Pettinato.

A memorial service will be held at a time to be announced.

-- Phyllis Meras