Evidence of true kismet seems to be a rare commodity these days, but such tales are often legendary. Enter Sam Richiusa and Mae Villani, who became Camarillo residents in 1990 and both died within the last few years, but their true romance dates back to their parents’ migration from Italy to Ellis Island.
Two of the children of the Richiusas, Judy Nichols of Port Hueneme and Gordon Richiusa of Orange County, have taken on the task of keeping the memories of their parents alive through a nonprofit dedicated to helping veterans who suffer from PTSD and a very special double-heart bracelet.
“They met as teenagers, as their parents were friends on the East Coast,” Nichols said, noting that her grandparents were from Italy, and her father’s mother and father met on the boat coming to Ellis Island. “My Mama (Mae) was born in Framingham, Massachusetts. Papa was born in Newark, New Jersey, but when the families decided to move to the west (California), they were only infants. … My Mama’s dad had a shoe repair shop on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. One day, my Papa went into the shop with his dad. That’s how they met.”
From that point, the relationship blossomed and became a lifelong commitment at the age of 20 for Mae and 22 for Sam. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Sam, who had been serving in the military for two years, got a two-week leave in May 1942 and the two eloped to Tucson, Arizona, on May 23, 1942.
After Sam returned from the war — he served for six years — the couple went on to have five children, Nichols being the firstborn. Nichols and her siblings with her parents were all born in Pasadena and then spent much of their youth in the San Fernando Valley. In 1990, Mae and Sam moved to Camarillo, with her father speaking on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor at the Ventura County Government Center each year.
Nichols said that her parents were married for 71 years when Mae died on Sept 28, 2013, one week shy of turning 92, while Sam lived for nearly two more years and died at 95, almost 96, on Aug. 13, 2015. They would have been married 75 years, this coming May 23, 2017.
With a true love that stayed strong for over seven decades was one little seemingly insignificant double-heart bracelet that remained somewhat of a mystery to Nichols and her siblings, a piece of jewelry she saw her mom wear but never heard her speak much about.
“My Mama always had the bracelet, but we never really thought much of it as kids,” she said. “Papa didn’t really like to talk about the war or watch movies, and he often had nightmares; but as kids growing up in those days, it just wasn’t addressed.”
It was through her brother Gordon, who is a writer, that the family learned the bracelet’s rich history. Gordon had been interviewing his father and winding through his memories when Sam revealed that the bracelet actually came from a piece of shrapnel from a downed Japanese bomber from Pearl Harbor. From this little piece of jagged metal came the double-heart bracelet that would later inspire Gordon and Nichols to create the Heroes Hearts nonprofit, which was officially established in December 2016.
“Dad told him (Gordon) to ‘do something good’ with it, and that’s how this entire idea of the nonprofit, PTSD, Heroes Hearts, etc. came about,” Nichols said. “It’s a wonderful, romantic way to honor those two whom I miss so terribly. They truly were two love birds, and the double-hearted bracelet is so very apropos for that very, very unique special love, where two hearts were beating as one while they were together for almost 72 years of marriage and since they were both teenagers.”
For Gordon, the journey has been profound for several reasons, including the fact that the bracelet is the only sweetheart souvenir recorded from the attack on Pearl Harbor and that one of his father’s close friends who served with him at Pearl Harbor ended up in an internment camp in Manzanar, California.
“The nonprofit is called Heroes’ Hearts, signifying not only my father and mother, but also every military person and every person that does something on behalf of somebody else. It encompasses everybody and every person that has ever done something selfless for the love of friends, family, country.”
To find out more about Heroes’ Hearts, go to heroesheartsbracelet.org. Worth noting: According to Nichols, the man who created the double heart bracelet “exact replica” prototype for reproduction was imprisoned at Auschwitz in Germany in World War II.