Philip Joseph DiGiovanni, DDS, passed away peacefully at the age of 83 on Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in Southern Pines.
The eldest son of Angelo DiGiovanni and Helen (Dal Lago) DiGiovanni, he was born Nov. 3, 1937, in Queens, N.Y. Philip skipped two school grades before the family moved to Nanuet, N.Y., where he played varsity football and golf for Nyack High and garnered the nickname “The Giant” before entering the pre-dental program at the University of Maryland in 1954.
He acquired his enduring love for sailing at the Island Heights Yacht Club near his family’s small vacation cottage in Seaside Heights, N.J. After graduating in 1957 as one of Maryland’s College Park firemen in residence, he attended the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, where he received his Doctorate of Dental Surgery in 1961.
In July of that same year Phil enlisted in the Naval Administrative Command at the U.S. Naval Training Center in San Diego. He studied clinical endodontics at the University of Southern California and the U.S. Marine Recruit Depot, attaining the rank of lieutenant in the Dental Corps of the U.S. Navy Reserve. While in California, Phil met Brenda Lynn Albrecht, a physical education teacher originally from Monticello, N.Y. The couple later returned to New York together, where Philip started his solo dental practice in Pearl River. They married in Monticello on Nov. 21, 1964, subsequently settling in Pomona, N.Y., where Philip built their first home with the help of close friends.
It was here that they raised a tight-knit family that centered time around outdoor activities and enjoyed holiday traditions in every season. Thanksgivings were spent at Brenda’s family home on Indian Field Pond in White Lake, N.Y, a hunting and fishing reservation where Philip especially appreciated the peacefulness of the woods, hunting by bow and arrow, and harvesting the family Christmas tree each winter. Summers brought the family to the coast of New England on weekends to sail aboard Invictus and, later, Fidelis, through which Philip and Brenda eventually identified their favorite coastal destinations—Stonington, Conn., the fishing grounds off Block Island, R.I., and Down East Maine. Avid skiers, Philip and Brenda also coveted the family time they spent teaching this sport to their three children and seven grandchildren through an occasional weekend spent in the Adirondacks. Ski trips to Taos, N.M., eventually became an important family tradition for Philip and Brenda to enjoy with their grandchildren.
Philip was also very patriotic, and loved playing Ray Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful” every Fourth of July when he would take the opportunity to fire off his old Navy cannon from either yard or boat. He appreciated the role seafaring played during U.S. Colonial times, sporting extensive knowledge of U.S. naval history and shipbuilding and ultimately becoming an annual supporter of Mystic Seaport Museum.
Phil grew to appreciate strong conservative ideals during the innumerable hours he spent building his dental practice, and exhibited a tireless work ethic. He became known for listening to NPR and admiring folk artists such as Peter, Paul and Mary, the Weavers, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Neil Diamond and John Denver, who collectively became the soundtrack for every family adventure. Over time, Phil cultivated several other interesting talents too. Beyond being a member of his high school chorus, a part-time taxi driver in his later teens and a painter in his 20s, one of his greatest gifts was his eloquence with a pen. The handwritten cards he would frequently make for Brenda and his children over the years belied an expansive lexicon, romanticism and remarkably touching way with words that would strikingly capture the meaning of momentous times in our lives.
A clear hallmark of family time with Philip was his love of cracking jokes, his seemingly infinite supply of brilliant one-liners, and the glee he obviously experienced when trying to fool his kids and grandkids at every get-together. Although he reveled in this mischievous heckling, Philip was known to respect honesty and a strong work ethic above all other traits, and was a firm believer in the value of education. He was also a devout Roman Catholic who never missed a weekend Mass. He will likely be remembered above all for the loyalty and love he held for family and friends; time with them was always sacredly protected in every corner of his life.
His sense of humor made him popular with his patients, for whom, Brenda memorably quipped, “He’d put on the charm” — although we could never figure out how he fit those gigantic hands into people’s mouths every day. For over 40 years, Philip treated generations of families through his dental practice, with Brenda as his office manager for the last couple of decades. Right up until retirement, Dr. DiGiovanni was visible in local communities and promoted dental health beyond his practice. He was president of the Rockland County Dental Society and Nanuet Lions Club, as well as staff provider for Good Samaritan Hospital. He pushed regional authorities to add fluoride to the local water supply, and offered his time as a dental consultant to the Nanuet School System by giving checkups to students and promoting oral hygiene. Sweets were only permitted in our home on holidays, and for Halloween only toothbrush/toothpaste kits were handed out to trick-or-treaters, so it didn’t take long for word to spread in the neighborhood that the DiGiovanni house was definitely one to skip. Even Brenda had to create her own secret stash of candy (although, much to her consternation, we always found it).
Philip developed great relationships with police departments throughout Rockland County, and even cooked up a neighborhood watch program and jury-rigged home monitoring system (think Robert DeNiro in “Meet the Parents”), to keep an eye on his children when he and Brenda weren’t home. We didn’t get away with much, although often joyfully deluding ourselves that we had.
Philip was also a remarkable do-it-yourselfer, and could fix practically anything, albeit with an occasional Rube Goldberg contraption. Whether it was a screen door, a tractor or a clock, “Grandpa” was always happiest having a project to help his children or grandchildren with or riding them around on his lawnmower. His keen ability to problem solve made him very tech savvy. He transitioned his patients’ hardcopy dental records to digital well before we hit our digital age, created his own YouTube channel, and was proud of maintaining his contributor level following frequent reviews submitted on Trip Advisor. He also prided himself on using aged navigation equipment to outperform the newest electronic versions his buddies used while out sailing, and could easily dead reckon when necessary, although truth be told, he did still find the occasional “rock” with the boat.
When not plotting a course on the water, Philip’s other favorite pastime was finding his way through the medieval back alleys of Italy with an espresso-stained map. He and Brenda eventually touched every Italian province through their years, and their journeys to Europe and beyond epitomized the wonderful life they had together.
In 2003, Philip and Brenda retired to Stonington, Conn. There they shared over a decade of outdoor boating, skiing, beaches, fishing, and travel with children and grandchildren.
In 2012, Brenda was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, and Philip became her incredibly able and patient caregiver in the years that followed, until an unfortunate accident in August 2015, when Philip himself became disabled by a traumatic brain injury after being struck by a car. These changes necessitated their move to St. Joseph of the Pines, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility in North Carolina. Despite his sudden complete loss of independence, five months of hospitalization, and a year of rehab, Phil never once complained — and would always put exclamation marks on each day with his hallmark sense of humor and deep love of country. Right up through his final days he remained the proud and stoic individual who never asked for much that we all knew him to be.
Dr. DiGiovanni was predeceased by his beloved wife, Brenda, on Sept. 16, 2020, and we take great consolation in knowing that he is now reunited with the apple of his eye as well as his many other dear friends and family members who predeceased him. He is survived by his sister Ann Sorrentino and husband, Anthony Sorrentino, of Murrell’s Inlet, S.C., his brother Gerard DiGiovanni and wife, Mary (Soricelli) DiGiovanni, of Fishkill, N.Y., and his brother Stephen DiGiovanni, of New York. He is also survived by his oldest son, Christopher DiGiovanni, wife Sudie (Naimi) DiGiovanni and their four sons, Nicholas, Cameron, Peter and William DiGiovanni, of Milton, Mass.; his daughter Maria DiGiovanni, husband David Casey and their three sons, Philip, Jack and George Casey, of Pinehurst; and his youngest son, Andrew DiGiovanni, of Vienna.
He will be cremated at Boles Funeral Home in Southern Pines, and a family-only celebratory Mass will be said in his honor at both the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pinehurst, and at the St. Mary Catholic Church in Stonington, Conn. Philip’s ashes will be united with Brenda’s in accordance with their wishes and a funeral Mass held for both at St. Joseph’s Church in New London, Conn. There are also plans for a gathering to be held in their honor at Dodson Boatyard in Stonington, Conn. Interment of the companion urn with their combined ashes will take place at the Connecticut State Veterans Cemetery in Middletown, Conn.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Philip’s name may be made to the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Conn; St. Joseph of the Pines in Southern Pines; or FirstHealth Hospice and Palliative Care in West End. Online condolences may be made at www.bolesfuneralhome.com. Services are entrusted to Boles Funeral Home of Pinehurst.