joe amatoThe Times Leader Scranton-Wilkes BarreJoe Amato is living an extraordinarily full life – with milestone moments not in the ordinary order.

In a whirlwind 13 days last month, the five-time NHRA Top Fuel champion from Eastern Pennsylvania turned 70 years old, married longtime girlfriend Andrea Donten, and was graduated from high school.

“I never graduated high school, because I quit school to work my father’s business when I was 16,” Amato said of his unconventional introduction to the working world. “I went to South Scranton Junior High School. I only went to the 10th grade.”

His father developed a debilitating heart condition and was unable to keep up with running A&A Auto Parts. The speed shop’s only two employees quit then to open a gas station. Amato and his dad asked, “What do we do now?”

The only logical solution was for young Joe to step in.

“I was running the place already. Sixteen years old, and I was the boss,” he said. “I learned everything about the business – small business, but . . . It all worked out, you know?”

By the time Amato turned 20, the business had five stores, eventually 24, and Amato was building Keystone Automotive Warehouse into a lucrative venture.

“As it turned out, it worked out pretty good. I built a large business and made a couple pennies . . . and life goes on,” he said.

That’s being modest for this man who operated the family store and saw it grow exponentially, then branched out to other enterprises beyond and unrelated to his successful drag-racing career. Amato has owned a bank and a golf course (which he designed because he didn’t want to mark time on a waiting list at the local country club). Today he owns several commercial/retail properties, including shopping centers, a bar-and-grill restaurant, two housing developments, and a remarkable reserve of collectible automobiles, muscle cars, and trucks.

He even was featured in a Forbes magazine article, no small accomplishment.

But Amato never received that high-school diploma. He never lamented about it publicly, but privately he said many times it was among his biggest regrets.

Then came his 70th birthday, and friend Carlyle Robinson was stumped regarding what gift to give him. After all, what can one lavish on a buddy who travels the world, has his own beautiful home in which he has entertained a former First Lady of the United States, owns commercial real estate, and has known the thrill of winning multiple sporting championships?

Robinson got on the phone and arranged for Amato to receive an honorary high-school diploma.

Amato grew up on the South Side of Scranton and throughout his racing career sometimes was listed as a resident of Exeter, Pa. But the home he adopted for three decades was Old Forge, a blue-collar, lunch-bucket Lackawanna County burg in Pennsylvania coal country that survived the pitfalls of anthracite coal mining and the exit of textile factories.

“It’s a little pizza town, Pizza Capital of the World, I call it, because there’s all these great Italian restaurants with pizza,” Amato proudly said.

Indeed, the town is chock-full of pizza joints with Italian names as delicious as the pies:  Revello's, Mancuso's, Salerno's, Ghigiarelli's, Mucciolo's, Lettieri's, Brutico's, Cusumano, Laurenzi's, Fortunato, Talarico, Elio G's.

But “Amato” often took center stage. Many say the Top Fuel great put the town on the map. So Old Forge High School jumped at the chance to embrace such a prominent member of the community. Current principal Christoper Thomas, incidentally, was Amato’s newspaper delivery boy in his youth. So the gesture was one of reaching out to a well-respected, well-known member of the community.

“It was nice. It was really nice,” Amato said of the evening with his fellow 2014 Old Forge High School graduates. “I made it about them. It was their thing. But they welcomed me with open arms.”

School Board President Deborah DeSando indicated she was proud to be part of the ceremony that helped Amato complete his goals. And she took pride in the diploma she handed him, saying, “This is no ordinary honorary diploma. There is no diploma like an Old Forge diploma. This symbolizes hard work, grit, and success.”

Amato said, “People want to know: Where did you put the diploma? Andrea says, ‘It’s right on his desk, next to the article in 1990 from Forbes magazine, calling him the Boy Wonder who turned the auto-parts world upside down.’ ”

He rushed to make the ceremony as he and Andrea returned from their honeymoon in Greece and Italy. They had married just 13 days earlier, a day after Amato celebrated his 70th birthday.

“My birthday was June 13,” Amato said. “I had a party at my house for 300 people, a giant party. We had a weekend party. We started Friday. Saturday we had a brunch. We got married at the brunch. We’ve been together 10 years. We didn’t tell anybody. We just brought a magistrate in and got married. We said, ‘We’re getting married now, guys! We did it like that. Nobody knew. Then we had another big party that night. The next day we got on a plane and went to Greece.”

So Amato officially is a septuagenarian, a husband, and an Old Forge Blue Devil alumnus. And he said Andrea has a full house: “three dogs, three kids, and me.”

He said age is just a number. “I don’t feel 70. I feel like I’m 50 or something,” he said. “I keep healthy, and I’m still very active and just do what I do. That’s the key, I think – just keep moving.”