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Remembering Vince Agro

Remembering Vince Agro

Long-time Hamilton Councillor Vince Agro, who died at age 83, found a second career as a writer, and a good one at that– more on that in a moment.  My first encounter with Vince was vicarious. Living in London at the time, I attended the 1976 Labour Day Classic in Hamilton between the TigerCats and the Argos. There was a municipal election underway and Vince was running against Jack MacDonald for the top job. Vince had been serving as acting mayor following Vic Copps’ heart attack earlier that year. There were all kinds of election signs on lawns around Ivor Wynne stadium, and being a stranger to Hamilton politics, I confess only now that I misread the Agro signs and was somewhat bemused at the amount of support for the Argos in the Ticat’s home town.

Vince and Bill McCulloch, who also died earlier this year, were the perennial one-two punch in representing Ward Two in Hamilton. It was the era of two aldermen, as they were called, regardless of gender, per ward. Bill was more associated with the affluent south end of the ward, and Vince was the king of the north end where he had been born.  It was an exciting time in Hamilton, with urban renewal seen as the solution for Ontario’s ailing downtowns. The council of Vince’s day was preoccupied with megaprojects like Jackson Square and Hamilton Place, and later with the construction of the Hamilton Convention Centre and Copps Coliseum. With Hamilton Place came a cultural renaissance in Hamilton that attracted a dynamic array of creative brilliance featuring figures like Boris Brott of the Hamilton Philharmonic, Daniel Lipton of Opera Hamilton, and impresario Tom Burrows who brought a host of international stars to Hamilton Place.

While all this was going on Vince operated a very successful insurance and employee benefits business. It was Vince who spearheaded the twinning of Hamilton and Racumuto Sicily, where Vince’s parents and those of many other Hamiltonians  had been born. It was a political shock in the 1997 municipal election when Vince and Bill McCulloch were both defeated, ending 25 and 31 years of service respectively. Vince was philosophical in defeat, “I feel that I have done a good job and I feel honoured that people voted for me for so many years.” He added that the defeat “is probably a welcome change in my life. I really had to struggle in my own my mind about whether to continue. It can be a toll on your family and private life.”

In 1999 Vince attended an exhibition depicting the Italo-Canadian experience in Hamilton. He came away incensed that the display not only failed to recognize the contribution made by Italo-Canadian Hamiltonians in the Second World War (his brother John had served in the Canadian forces and was wounded) but suggested the community harboured pro fascist sentiments. He and his brothers fired off  a letter to the Spectator that concluded, “As products of the Italo-Canadian contribution towards the war cause, we resent this position taken by the exhibition and its researchers for neglecting to even mention the sacrifices made by Canadians of Italian descent who fought against the fascist/Nazi curse, and for failing to applaud their loyalty during the war.”

Vince’s acclaimed fact-based novel

The letter was a precursor to Vince’s late-life career as a writer. He took a creative writing course at Mohawk College and started writing.  His first work, The Good Doctor, was a masterpiece. It was finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize Reader’s Choice contest and won the 2012 F.G. Bressani Literary Prize for Fiction. It told the story of his uncle Doctor Vincenzo Arcone who strove to fight the forces of fascism within his community and prejudice without. Filled with vibrant characters the book depicted the prejudice faced by Italo-Canadian in Hamilton as government overreacted to the Fascist threat and interned hundreds of Italian men. Beyond the story line was a vivid depiction of every day life in the colonia—the Italo-Canadian enclave in the North end between James and Bay Street, seen through the eyes of a young boy. Vince was nine when the war ended. Vince followed up the success of his first work with “In Graces Kitchen”—a mixture of anecdotes and recipes for Italian food, again based in La Colonia, this time describing the unique culinary arts practiced by his mother and others in the neighbourhood—“onion OR garlic in a sauce—never both,”

His obituary describes Vince as “the true definition of a modern day Renaissance man….pianist, composer, opera aficionado, chef, teacher extraordinaire, gifted politician, successful businessman, and an award winning author. Vince has lived well, is loved greatly and now will be sadly missed.”

He is survived by his wife Angeline Gravino of 59years, his son Anthony Agro . His daughter Jennine Agro-Lopresti predeceased. He is also survived by son in law Charlie Lopresti, and three grandchildren– Natalie, Ben and Charles Lopresti. Cremation has taken place, and a memorial will be held once the pandemic is ended.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger said in a statement released today, “I had the pleasure of not only serving with Vince on city and regional council, but he also was my English teacher during his brief stint in education. Vince was good friend and advisor to me, and I will miss him dearly. Hamilton has lost a passionate advocate for our community and our people. My sincere condolences to Vince’s family, friends and loved ones on his passing.”

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