When Russ Calletta was a teenager, he got into the glass-cutting industry in Hammonton. When he got out a few years ago, Calletta was the glass-cutting industry in Hammonton.
About 70 years came between Calletta starting as a $5-a-week apprentice and finally retiring in 2009 — at 89. But even when he shut down his business, the old artisan wasn’t finished etching intricate, detailed designs into fine glass. He just did it for fun or for his family in his home shop.
Calletta was 93 when he died last month. “But even at his age, his hands didn’t shake at all,” said his son, Frank M. Calletta, also of Hammonton. “He was very steady.”
When he was retiring, Calletta told an interviewer that at one point, there were 16 glass cutters in Hammonton. They all got out of the business before he did.
In his career, Calletta created lots of fine glassware — and lots of fans. His longtime neighbor, Dorothea Raffa, sees his pieces on display all over Hammonton, especially in her own home.
“I don’t know who has more of it, me or his daughter,” she said. “And anybody I gave gifts to from Mr. Calletta’s shop, they just fell in love with his work.”
Raffa, a friend of Russ and his wife, Marge, for more than 40 years, feels lucky that she got to watch the artist at work.
“I think that’s why I always really enjoyed giving his work as gifts — because I know what went into it,”she said. “He really loved what he did.”
Frank R. Calletta, Russ’ grandson, also used to watch his grandpa work. But Frank never had the patience to cut glass, and Russ never pushed him.
“I think he understood it was a dying profession,” the grandson said. “Even if I showed a little interest, he’d say, ‘Go to school and study hard, so you can can do something better.’”
The grandson, now 33 and living in Atlantic City, took that advice and became a math teacher. But on the side, he plays guitar in a reggae band, and music is a passion he shared with his grandpa.
When he was younger, Russ played trumpet in the John Calletta Band, named for his brother. The group included a few more Callettas, and it played big band-style music for 30 years. So when young Frank got into guitar, Russ was happy.
“He’d say, ‘Oh, that’s good, Frankie. No one else wanted to take up music but you,’” the grandson said. But he also knows Russ had no regrets about his own career choices.
“He used to sell to Tiffany, Wanamakers, Strawbridges. One time, a glass company offered him a really big salary to move up to North Jersey,” his grandson said. “But it didn’t even cross his mind. He loved being in Hammonton with his family. I don’t think I’ve ever known anybody who was more content with his home and his life.”
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