George Verrilli’s eyes aren’t what they used to be, so he’s had to cut down on the tennis and the solo catamaran sailing.
He hasn’t lost his sense of humour, though. Offering to take a visitor for a spin in his 2006 Maserati Gran Sport convertible, Verrilli quickly gets it into top gear and, hurtling down the road, turns to his slightly nervous passenger and says ‘I think I’m wearing the wrong glasses.’”
“The Italian cars are the best, they have a personality,”
- George Verrilli
Verrilli is a retired obstetrician from New York who’s been coming to the north shore of Nova Scotia in the summer “since the ’30s.” His mother, who was from Springhill, was training in nursing at a hospital in Boston, where she met and married a doctor from Brooklyn who was doing his residency in pediatrics.
“My mother wanted to show my dad Nova Scotia, so they came up and went to Springhill to meet the Beaton tribe, her seven siblings,” Verrilli said. “Then they went down to Heather Beach, which is what the Springhillers did, the miners, it was their summer spot. And he loved it.”
He loved it so much he bought five lots of land from a farmer for $50 each (this was in 1934), and hired the farmer’s brother to build a cottage.
“So we, as kids, spent all our summers except for a couple during the Second World War, down at the beach,” Verrilli remembers. “He’d drive us down, then fly out of the airport the other side of Saint John, a military airport that also served private flights. He’d fly home, then come back the middle of August and stay a week and drive us home.”
Verrilli worked as a doctor for 63 years, and assisted in the birth of 14,129 babies. In 1980, he founded the first birthing centre in New York State in his hometown of Rhinebeck, where he stressed physical fitness for prospective moms.
“It was very popular. I had midwives, which some doctors did not like, I think because it took away income from them. Patients would see my...nurses in the office, along with the midwives and myself. They got to feeling that we were interested in their pregnancy and in their outcome, and they could reach us any time. We went from 200 deliveries a year to a thousand, pulling (patients) away from places that were 80, 100 miles away, who’d heard about us,” said Verrilli, who retired at 85.
“My eyesight got a little bit compromised. I told the patients ‘Don’t worry about, it I can’t see the problem I can feel the problem,” he says with a big laugh. “And that’s when they all started to go away.”
One of his patients was so taken with Verrilli’s approach that she proposed they work together on a project in her realm, which was publishing. He had been handing out pamphlets explaining natural childbirth, and the philosophy of his birthing centre.
“One of my patients was an author from the city, she had a summer home up that way. I gave her the pamphlet and she said ‘I think we can do better than this.’ So we sat and chatted about my approach....and she said ‘I want to do a book about pregnancy and childbirth, called While Waiting,’” Verrilli said.
First published in 1982 and reprinted several times, While Waiting has sold more than six million copies, generating enough royalties for Verrilli to put seven kids through college.
Verrilli’s summer home is near the Northumberland Links golf course, about 20 km from the original family cottage at Heather Beach, adjacent to The Gulf Shore Camping Park.
“I bought this place because Mr. Christie put in the camping park and promptly died. And his widow didn’t want it so I bought it from her, brought my kids down here and made them work.”
The campground is as much a social project as a business. In the 50 years he’s been running it, Verrilli has made a profit twice.
“Under a thousand bucks. The season is too short,” he said, adding that the campground was never really intended to be a money maker. “I see people that don’t have a summer cottage, or whose parents don’t have anything. They bring their kids here in a trailer, some tent. They come May 15 and leave September 15.”
One reason that Verrilli isn’t desperate to squeeze every nickel out of every project is because of something that happened to him as a young man.
The G.I. bill had put the squeeze on medical school seats in the U.S., so Verrilli enrolled in med school in Italy, taking a crash course in Italian, attending Italian movies and getting an Italian girlfriend to help him become fluent.
Tuition was $75 a year.
In 1954, he hadn’t been home for four years, so he decided to surprise his family by showing up for Christmas. Verrilli and his buddy Henry booked a flight home that had stops in England, Ireland, Gander and Boston, before getting to New York
“Somehow he finagled a first class ticket for the regular price, and he was in the back,” Verrilli said about Henry. “First class was in the back of the plane then. So when everybody got off in Boston, he asked the stewardess if his friend could come and sit with him. So I came back and sat with him, and when we got over New York it was in the afternoon, it was all fog and we got up into this stack of planes landing. When it came our turn he came in too high, we went back up to the top of the stack, he came down and the next time he came in too low. It was a brand new plane, a DC-6B, and I was on the left side of the aisle, the wing hit the wharf, then the plane nosedived into the water. The impact was so severe that the tail broke off and myself and a steward and Henry kept going in the tail and it plopped down in the water. Those two fellas jumped into the water and I climbed on the arms of the seat and got up onto the plane and it drifted over to the wharf. There was a rowboat tied to the wharf for some reason, and I got in that, pulled Henry out, the steward drowned, we pulled up an old man, who was floating and alive, into the boat.”
Only a few people survived the crash that killed dozens at Idlewild Airport, later renamed JFK.
“I felt pretty lucky and it had an effect. I think tragedy has an effect long-term on you, you appreciate more, you try to understand what it’s all about a little bit. It did help me grow up,” said Verrilli, who didn’t grow up at once, using the settlement money from the plane crash to begin a lifetime hobby of owning fast cars.
He’d had a Model A in high school, and now, even though he was living in Italy, he purchased an Austin Healey and entered it in a road race with a co-driver named Bruno Ferrari, finishing fourth out of 534 cars.
He went on to own as many as 200 cars over the years, most of them interesting, and one that turned out to be an incredible investment.
“I bought a 1970 Maserati Ghibli convertible, bought it at the factory for $13,800,” he said. “Two years ago I sold it - they only made 67 convertibles since the Italian ladies don’t like to get their hair mussed up - I sold it to a guy in California for $850,000.”
With that windfall, Verrilli built a six car garage that holds the Nova Scotia section of his collection, which includes the Maserati (“It’s a chick magnet. Pretty, isn’t it?”), a ‘74 Jaguar XJ-12L, which he bought new, a ‘57 Chrysler Imperial (“I love it because it’s such a boat. It seats six and you can put four more in the trunk.”), a ‘47 Woody Wagon, a ‘64 E-Type Jaguar, a ‘54 MG and a ‘31 Model A truck he bought at the State Fair in Rhinebeck, and which still has the original wooden slats in the bed, made from maple imported from Norway.
“The Italian cars are the best, they have a personality,” said Verrilli, who also used part of the proceeds from the Maserati sale to buy an old chocolate factory in his hometown and convert it into a community centre.
“I’ve always been community oriented and I like to see people being taken care of, I think that’s why I became a doctor, not because my father was a doctor,” he said.
Verrilli drives himself back and forth from New York to Nova Scotia, a trip that he does in one shot of 11 or 12 hours.
He had three children with one wife, four with another, and all seven of them were together for the first time for Verrilli’s 90th birthday party at Northumberland Links.
“They live all over the U.S., they all love Nova Scotia, and they all came, and we had a great time,” he said of the party attended by 76 people.
“And I had to pay for it.”