By Michelle Weinroth
Refurbished in 2017, the National Arts Centre (NAC) now ranks among Ottawa’s finest edifices. With its spectacular Kipnes Lantern and glass facades, it illuminates the advent of world-renowned performing artists. Indeed, the NAC scintillates with stardom. Yet, beneath its glamour dwells a history of humble but no less stellar persons – people who laboured tirelessly to make the NAC the architectural centerpiece it is today. These workers laid its foundations, erected its walls and painted its vast interiors, from catacombs to ceilings. Like Michelangelo who scaled great heights to adorn the Sistine Chapel, the NAC’s painters stoically endured their perilous job, clambering atop tall ladders and scaffolds. For a singular painter, Mario Vettore, the act of beautifying the NAC – however strenuous the task – was the crowning glory of his years of manual work.
This same Mario is your Glebe neighbour. He settled here in the late 1950s, having just emigrated from Italy. No job was too menial for him. He laid cement foundations in Tunney’s Pasture, sliced carcasses in a Vanier abattoir and chopped onions in the Chateau Laurier’s kitchen. Son of an Italian sharecropper, he learned early on to suffer rigorous toil.
In his native Padua, the teenage Mario had worked in the fields alongside his father. He was 15 when the war broke out. In 1942, he was conscripted, rounded up and then held in army barracks along with countless other soldiers. His keen sense of danger (the prospect that he, together with many innocent young men, would be deported to Mauthausen, an infamous Nazi concentration camp), led him to literally “dodge the bullet.” Together with a close pal, he jumped off two moving trains, risking grave injury but averting death at the hands of the Nazis. He emerged unscathed; but his cunning escape from peril – including a furtive climb up barbed wire on which his trousers were snagged and torn – left him shaken.
When the war was over, he found employment at a local steel foundry. Then, in 1949, he ventured farther afield, travelling to England to work at the Victoria Foundry in Birmingham. He lived with fellow workmen in army barracks and toiled amid gargantuan cauldrons of molten iron, shaping heavy materials for machinery and large-scale vehicles. On weekends he found relief and recreation in the Italian social clubs and, most importantly, his future wife.
The two were married upon their return to Italy in 1952. Economic hardship, however, compelled them to immigrate to Canada. In January 1957, they travelled by ship with their infant son through the turbulent Straits of Gibraltar. Memories of rampant nausea on board caused by the tossing sea haunt Mario to this day. Happily, they arrived in Halifax, safe and relieved. Upon settling in Ottawa, pangs of nostalgia dogged Mario relentlessly. For six months, he slept with a packed suitcase by his bed. Slowly, the longing for Padua waned and Canada became his new hearth.
Mario was hired as the NAC’s plumber in 1969 and in 1975 he was promoted to painter. Over seven years, he painted virtually the entire NAC interior. One day, in 1983, he fell off a ladder while painting the basement garage. The accident landed him in a Toronto compensation hospital where he spent three months recovering from severe injuries. Resilient, he returned to the NAC as an engineer, monitoring the building’s temperature, lighting and water systems. Unbeknownst to visitors and performers alike, he had become the NAC’s “guardian angel.” Four years later, he retired and thereafter became a full-time landlord in the Glebe.
I met Mario in 1995 when my family and I rented his apartment on First Avenue. He was the finest of landlords. Every summer he would bring me a basket of homegrown tomatoes, ripened to perfection. Each Christmas he would greet me warmly with a festive pannetone.
Mario is now 94, affable, sharp-witted and gracious as ever. I paid him a visit last year. He was fixing up his patio when I approached his house. The gate at the end of the passageway to the garden was barricaded. I called out to him and he promptly came to welcome me. Always a gentleman, he lifted the heavy barrier quite effortlessly. As I entered, I spied, beyond the gate, an eight-foot hanging plant stand. “Mario,” I exclaimed, “did you build this?” He nodded modestly. With some help from his son, he had managed to wield several heavy beams of wood to mount the imposing structure. I marvelled at him as he pottered about the patio. Suddenly, his remarkable life story, from the fields of Padua to the towering NAC, crystallized before me. In a flash, I saw the dazzling Kipnes Lantern, and beneath it, the drama of invisible workers, elders of the Glebe – people like Mario who made it all possible.
Michelle Weinroth is an author and English literature teacher living in the Glebe.