- by Pat Saik
Peter James Benvenutti—everybody calls him “Pete”—was born in Bay St. Louis in 1925 and lives here still. His recollections can take us to a time before our time, and his mind is a treasure chest of stories about life in Hancock County.
“Did you know that people used to call Hancock County ‘The Free State of Hancock?’” Pete said, squinting. In the early 1940s, when Pete was in school at St. Stanislaus, this place was a hub of free-wheeling activity.
“We had gambling, slot machines and plenty of moonshine in this county,” Pete remembers. Not that Pete imbibed. After all, by the age of four, he already was serving as an altar boy.
However you define “local” around here, Pete Benvenutti’s credentials easily meet any criteria. Not only was he was born here, but his roots in the Bay go back to the late 1880s when his grandfather, a native of what is now known as Croatia, settled here.
“My grandfather’s real name was Anthony, but everybody knew him as ‘Happy Tony.’”
Clearly an adventurous guy, Pete’s grandfather Tony, a sailor, jumped ship when his vessel was docked in New Orleans, grabbing a chance to avoid the Austrian/Hungarian conflict going on in the late 1880s and to start a new life.
Attracted by the thriving fishing industry on the Mississippi coast, his grandfather made it to Bay St. Louis and decided to stay. When Pete and his wife Betty visited Croatia as part of their 50th anniversary celebration, Pete was astounded at the similarity of Croatia’s coastal landscape to the Mississippi coast, realizing that his grandfather must have felt a little of his former country recreated in his new one.
Happy Tony supported his family working as a foreman at the Dunbar Factory seafood plant in Bay St. Louis, which washed away in 1915.
On weekends, the family often visited other Croatian families, growing in number, who had settled at Point Biloxi.
Pete’s own father Anthony had eight children; sixth in line in a family of six girls and two boys, Pete was the second born son, born in Bay St. Louis in 1925.
“I’d never been any place but the coast until I was eighteen and the Marine Corps gave me a train ticket to California.”
That trip started Pete on a thirty year service record with the Marine Corps. He served in the South Pacific during World War II, and overseas in Japan with the Third Marine Division in the mid-1950s. On active duty until 1967, Pete also served as a recruiting officer. He retired from the reserves in 1975.
After retiring from the Marine Corps, Pete worked twenty years for the Coca-Cola operations in Gulfport. During that time, Pete was elected to the Bay St. Louis City Council, serving from 1977 to 1981.
Pete met his wife, Elizabeth “Betty” Beyer, when she was in high school and he had returned to Bay St. Louis after World War II ended. Pete had seen her at the post office one evening and wanted to get to know her. A little detective work led to the discovery that she was a friend and neighbor of one of his classmates.
Wasting no time, Pete called her to make a date. Betty accepted the invitation, promptly got a case of the mumps, and was forced to cancel what would have been their first date.
Pete and Betty married September 16, 1948. They remained married until Betty passed away September 4, 2013.
“I did the right thing before we married,” Pete recalls. “I talked to Betty’s father and asked for her hand. He said ‘No.’ But we got married anyhow at Our Lady of the Gulf.”
Pete and Betty had eight children, six boys and two girls. The family moved several times during Pete’s service with the Marine Corps. By 1964, the family moved back to Bay St. Louis permanently.
Pete’s fourth born, Mike, owns an electrical repair service business in Gulfport. Three of his children—Patrick, Mary Kay and Ned—work together in their own business—Bay Motor Winding in Long Beach. Mary Beth, Pete’s younger daughter, is business manager for Alameda Community College in California.
When Pete was growing up in Bay St. Louis in the 1940s, fewer than 5000 people lived here. Ulman Avenue was then Highway 90, ending at a wooden bridge that traversed the Bay. He remembers a lady called Miss Kenny, whom he credits with first selling her homemade pralines to the general public. Miss Kenny hired a man to stand at the head of the wooden bridge across the Bay and sell pralines to the carloads of people going east.
It wasn’t long before the motoring public expected to find the pecan and sugar delicacy on their way through Bay St. Louis. Not to mention the white lightning. It was no secret that Bay St. Louis had a lot more to offer than candy.
At age 90, Pete enjoys watching the world go by from his front porch on Felicity Street. He’s a regular at the Bay St. Louis Yacht Club and probably knows more about what’s happening in town than most.
He recalls that his proudest moment in life “was when I became a father.” Pete continues: “I am proud that I had a wonderful wife and have a great family.” He now counts in his growing family eighteen grandchildren and fourteen great-grandchildren.
Happily for Bay St. Louis, it looks like the Benvenutti family is here to stay.