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A Rough Trail From Skid Row To The White House

Albany Times Union - May 28, 1995

by Carol DeMare, Staff Writer

As he stood in the White House Rose Garden and accepted the President's Service Award, Albany native Ray Castellani couldn't help but flash back to that time years earlier when he aimlessly roamed the Western countryside in a pickup wondering what to do with his life.

Now, here he was in Washington - a former actor, carpenter, alcoholic and skid row bum - accepting the nation's highest award for volunteer community service from President Clinton. He received a medal for the operation he launched 7 1/2 years ago, which has provided almost half a million meals to homeless people on Los Angeles' skid row.

"I was in a blue suit with a tie, an incongruous situation," the 62 year old Castellani recalled in a recent telephone interview. "Here I am coming from Skid Row and now I'm on the lawn of the White house. Unbelievable."

A resident of North Hollywood, Castellani - known as Ray Mayo when he attended Albany Academy for Boys - devotes all of his time to feeding those on skid row one good meal a day.

His non profit Frontline Foundation has come a long way from its rough start in December 1987 when Castellani began handing out 100 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that he made in a church kitchen which donated food.

Now, hundreds of volunteers join him daily. The operation has mushroomed, largely because of the efforts of his wife of three years, Noreen, a substitute teacher in the Los Angeles school system, who joined him early on.

It was Noreen who nominated him for the White House citation and kept it a secret from him for six months.

At the White House on April 27, Castellani wasn't too far from the people who mean so much to him. He could see the homeless in nearby Lafayette Park.

The Rose Garden ceremony was just another milestone in Castellani's roller coaster life. Born in the old Albany Memorial Hospital, which was downtown on the site of what is now the Leo J. O'Brien Federal Building, he spent his early years "shipped around, from pillar to post, including being placed in homes for boys in Yonkers and Troy," he said.

It was the mid-1930s, his parents were divorced, and there was "nobody who could take care of me," he said. His mother remarried when he was 7 and he ran away from the Troy home and landed at his maternal grandparents' on New Scotland Avenue where he extracted a promise from his grandfather, John Castellani, a contractor, to take care of him. His grandmother ran a nursing home in their residence.

"I knew then I would be safe," Castellani said.

He enrolled at the Albany Academy in the fourth grade under his stepfathers surname of Mayo and played football, basketball, baseball and track, graduating in 1952.

His athletic ability carried him through Albany Academy. Indeed, because of his turbulent early years, Castellani said, he was "absolutely illiterate as far as spelling and reading goes."

"I'm now at eighth - or ninth - grade level in reading, but to this day I have never read a book and I can spell phonetically."

Castellani started drinking at age 7 and didn't stop until he was 36 in 1969. The boozing began first with his godfather in the Italian neighborhoods of Albany's South End, in restaurants in the back rooms of barbershops that fronted as gambling joints, and eventually at meals with his grandparents.

"By 13, I was stashing whiskey bottles in my dresser drawers," he said. But he was young and healthy and strong. Teachers would tell him, "Ray you could be such a great performer if you didn't drink," he said.

He recalled making the rounds of dives around Albany's Green Street, such as the Torch Club, Yaks and the Emerald Club. Someone advised him to join Alcoholics Anonymous, but he was 18 and thought "you've got to be out of your mind."

After high school, he spent a month at Springfield College in Massachusetts on a football scholarship. He went to New York City to become an actor, got his draft notice and, inspired by John Wayne movies, joined the Marines.

In his first experiences on skid row, in New York City, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, he would go on binges for two or three days.

Surprisingly he was able to maintain a successful career as an actor, first in New York, then Hollywood. He performed in plays and television shows like "Bonanza," "The Lawman," and "Dragnet." He married and had four children.

By the time he finally sobered up in 1969, he was estranged from his family.

His talent had dissipated, but he returned to acting and took classes. At the age of 52, he returned to television, doing hundreds of shows, including "Simon and Simon," "Chips," "Quincy," "Hart to Hart," and "Ironside."

"I was always playing bad guys," he said, "and after a while it just didn't excite me.... I realized there was another direction I had to go."

He severed his ties, got rid of his furniture, threw a mattress in the back of his pickup truck and took off with no idea where he was going.

The year was 1987; he was 54. He drove up and down the West Coast. "I cried, pounded on the dashboard and asked God to show me what I was to do."

Finally, it came to him to return. "I sort of felt a little peace inside of me now driving back to Los Angeles."

He checked into a motel, ate a bologna sandwich, thought about what a raw deal life had dealt him and had visions of the skid rows he'd seen and the faces of the despaired people.

"And, it came to me to go down and serve food to this society." He thought to himself, "You have really gone off your rocker, you are crazy."

He knew the secretary and minister at a United Methodist Church and asked to use their kitchen. He got day-old rolls at a bakery and peanut butter and jelly from a friend in a restaurant.

At 3:00 one morning in December 1987, he made 111 sandwiches, rounded up a couple of friends at 8 a.m. They went to the heart of skid row and 100 hungry people rushed his truck when he told them he had food.

He found himself making more sandwiches with his son the following week.

For three years, he used the church kitchen before moving into a fully equipped, leased facility. He takes no salary and collects a disability check because of a bad heart.

Now, more than 450,000 later, the word is out about Castellani.

"The thing is I have to do it," he explained. "It's almost like I'm chosen to do it. I have no choice in this. It would make a better story to say 'I love doing this,' but that's not the truth. The truth is I was chosen to do this. It's my turn."