Joe & Yolanda Panichelli
Joe and Yolanda have been each other’s constant for more than nine decades.
Born the same day a year apart to neighboring West Philadelphia families, neither remembers a time before they were friends. Joe was in the second grade when he realized that Yolanda DeSantis was the most special girl he knew.
“Her mother said to all of the sisters, ‘Somebody has to do the dishes,’ and Yolanda immediately went and did them,” he said. “The respect she had for her mother, the love she had for her parents, was just unbelievable, and I thought, ‘Boy, what a girl!’ ”
The respect and fondness was mutual, Yolanda said. Even when a large group of kids played ball in the street, she and Joe sought out each other’s company. “We always wanted to be together. We were always compatible,” she said.
When she was in seventh grade and he in eighth, they began taking the El to see movies at the Mastbaum Theatre. They attended his prom at St. Thomas More High School in 1944 and hers at West Catholic Girls’ High School in 1945.
World War II was still raging, and at 18, Joe was drafted by the U.S. Army. He was lucky. “When I went for basic training, Germany surrendered,” he said. “When I was going overseas to Japan, Japan surrendered.” Joe was part of the occupation forces and was stationed in Japan for one year, but he never saw combat.
He wrote letters to Yolanda every night. She spent her evenings with girlfriends. “I never went out with another single soul, I just waited until he came home,” Yolanda said.
After his discharge, Joe studied accounting at La Salle, then launched a career with the Curley Adjustment Bureau insurance adjustment agency in Society Hill.
The DeSantis and Panichelli families had moved from the city to Havertown. It was there on their shared October birthday in 1951 that Yolanda and Joe married at Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A little less than two years later, they purchased a brick twin near the country club where they raised daughters Jean and Margie.
“He is hardworking, and we work well together,” Yolanda said of Joe. “No matter what we had to do, so long as we did it together, there was never a problem. And he is a great dad.”
“She is a great person, and a great listener, and she’s easy to live with,” Joe said of Yolanda. “Her devotion to our children is unbelievable. And another thing — Yolanda never, ever says a bad thing about anyone, and I admire her greatly for that.”
Between the births of their two girls, the couple lost two others — a set of twins. It was the most devastating experience of their lives. They buried the girls at SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery.
Many friends from their Havertown neighborhood eventually moved out of their houses and into larger, more expensive ones. But it was staying in their Greenview Lane twin that made Joe and Yolanda feel successful: Their parents were nearby, as was their church, and the SEPTA station where Joe caught the train to the El to get to work.
“Why would we leave?” Joe asks.
When Margie and Jean reached a more independent age, Yolanda became secretary to the director of admissions at Episcopal Academy.
Joe and Yolanda were very glad to live close enough to care for their parents when that time came.
Margie remembers: “I used to say to my mom, ‘How do you do that? You have no life.’ And she said, ‘We do what we do because they did so much for us.’ ”
Margie picked her husband, Gerry, in part because he was so good to his mother — his father had died when Gerry was young — and because he bonded so quickly with her parents.
Joe and Yolanda were thrilled when they, and Jean and her husband, Mike, both chose homes about five minutes away from the family homestead. All the better to spend time with four grandchildren, and, so far, five great-grandchildren.
Yolanda retired in the late 1990s after about 35 years of service at Episcopal, and Joe retired in 2010 as chairman of the board at Curley, after a total of 60 years.
They are now self-proclaimed homebodies. COVID-19 brought some changes: They can’t visit with Yolanda’s sisters or their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There’s no church, no leisurely chicken parm suppers at Soprano’s, and no trips to Harrah’s, where Joe loves to play the slots and Yolanda — well, Yolanda goes just to make Joe happy.
But the more drastic, if gradual, changes were those brought by living a long life. In October, the couple hopes the whole family will be able to gather to celebrate her 94th birthday, his 95th, and their 70th wedding anniversary.
Joe never enjoyed driving, but now he can’t. The couple are the last survivors among their closest friends. He and Yolanda both have health challenges; they are now the parents who need help, and their daughters are the children providing it.
“We have adjusted well more than anything because of our daughters,” said Yolanda. “They are here every single day.”
Margie and Jean have curtailed their own social circles to reduce the chances of giving COVID-19 to their parents. Every day, they visit, bring whatever is needed from the outside world, and do whatever needs doing. Gerry has cooked dinner for his in-laws nearly every night for two years.
“They are our life,” said Margie.
“And you are our life, too,” said Joe.
When she raised Margie and Jean, Yolanda tried to impress a motto upon them: Simple life, simple problems.
She now has a new version: “A simple life is a wonderful life,” she said. “Joe and I are happy where we are because we have each other.”