Beloved Darien gas station manager says goodbye after decades in CT: ‘The whole town is my family’

DARIEN — During the lunchtime rush hour at Mama Carmela’s Deli a few weeks ago, a teary-eyed Sam Chidella tried to recount stories from the past quarter century of his life.

But his trips down memory lane kept getting interrupted by a steady stream of visitors, as residents young and old swung by the table for a handshake and quick chat.

According to him — and everyone else — Chidella, 60, is something of an institution in town. The longtime manager of Exxon Mobil on Boston Post Road, Chidella has some impressive statistics: 20 years in town; 100,000 gallons of oil sold per month; and 50 local children he considers his own family, all of whom he has watched grow up.

Along the way, Chidella has served as an unofficial visitor’s welcome center to town, greeting everyone with a beaming smile and a hello.

Chidella, who emigrated from India in 1999 and has been in Darien since 2002, retired in early July. After his two decades in town, he returned to India on Aug. 1.

Was it the beginning of a new chapter?

“It feels like I’m closing the book,” Chidella said.

In the time he’s been here, Chidella said he has cultivated relationships with nearly everyone in town, including town and state officials, local entrepreneurs and police captains.

Some of those relationships have endured for years, Chidella said. For example, he said the former owner of Nielsens’s Florist used to bring him an extra-spicy breakfast sandwich every day, rain or shine. And dozens of people attended a farewell party for Chidella last month hosted at Nielsen’s Florist, right across the road from the Exxon Mobil Chidella worked at daily.

“It’s difficult to describe how tight he became with this town,” his son Phani Chidella said.

The senior Chidella said he will finally be reunited with his wife back home, who never emigrated with him. He said he looks forward to seeing old relatives again after years of only communicating with the help of technology.

But still, it’s hard to leave the place he’s grown to consider home, he said.

“I came here cleanly. I’m going with a sad heart,” Chidella said. “Every person here, I feel like I owe them.”

Without warning, he pauses to swipe at tear-filled eyes with a paper napkin. For a moment, thinking about the 20,000 people he will miss, Chidella is too overcome to speak.

When he first left India in the late ‘90s, Chidella’s father gave him some advice: “Make one friend a day. Then by the end of the year, you have a lot of friends,” Chidella recalls his father telling him.

The second piece of advice has an echo of his initial move to the U.S.: “You are leaving here (in India) a lot of family,” Chidella’s father told him. “When you come back, bring a lot of family.”

Chidella said he thinks he’s done just that.

“The whole town is my family,” Chidella said. “What I’m losing here ... is all my family.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify how long Chidella was in Darien.