When an Italian begins a post entitled “The Family Business” the general population immediately and unfortunately thinks of the Corleone “family” business. Such is the state of our culture today.
This post however is about our family and the story of immigrants who came to this country leaving behind their family, friends and language for a chance at a new life in America. It is the story of millions.
My grandfather Francesco Scarangella came to this country in January 1906. He was a widower in his early 30s with 3 children born in Italy to his late wife Antonia Geronimo.
Francesco, living in Toritto outside of Bari felt he had no future in the new Italian nation, still virtually feudal in the south. He courted a local girl, Laura DeVito and posed the question: Would she marry the widower with 3 children and leave her country and family for a new life and adventure in America?
Laura DeVito in the early 1960s
Laura said yes; they were married in November 1905 and Francesco left for America in January with his eldest son Gaetano. Laura followed several months later with the two younger children, Vito and Margie. They settled on Manhattan’s lower east side on Broome Place. They had five more children; my father, the youngest, was born in 1917.
Francesco went into the ice business which is something many from his region in Italy did on arriving in America.It was the job no one else wanted. On his horse and wagon he would deliver blocks of ice to the tenements using ice tongs to hoist the ice onto a perpetually wet cloth on his back and carry it up the tenement stairs to the ice boxes in the apartments above.
By the time my father was born Francesco’s occupation was listed as “coal dealer” on my dad’s birth certificate.
Meanwhile his children were growing up. Gaetano changed his name to a more American one in order to get a city job. His eldest daughter now in her 80s lives in Texas near to her daughter. She has fond memories of my mom whom she said was always kind to her as a little girl. Vito married and moved to the Bronx where my cousin Frank was born in 1924. Four years later Vito decided to stake out new territory for an ice and coal business, moving to the southern-most town on Staten Island – Tottenville. Staten Island was until the opening of the Verrazano Bridge a sparsely populated prairie inhabited mostly by trees.
In the midst of the great depression he founded what was to become one of the largest heating oil, gas electric and HVAC contractors in the New York tri-state area.
Cousin Frank graduated from Tottenville High and then enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps becoming a B-24 bomber pilot. After his military service, he enrolled in Columbia University on the GI Bill to study pharmacy, but he dropped out to help his father, Vito, in the ice and coal business.
Eventually he took over the family business in 1964. Today, Scaran, run by his sons Frank Jr. and Tom specializes in heating, air conditioning and plumbing projects, in addition to the sale of electricity, natural gas and fuel oil.
Both sons consider their dad was “their best role model.”
“Dad was the kind of guy who believed in teaching by example,” said Thomas. “He was there in the office every day, when a lot of guys his age would be home relaxing or on the golf course. He taught us that nothing comes easy; that you have to work hard, put in the hours and pay your dues to be successful.”
“Dad also taught us the importance of giving back to the community,” added Frank Jr. “He taught us that if you’re going to make a living serving the people in the community, you have an obligation to help make your community a better place to live and work.”
And their father Frank practiced what he preached.
“He was a Board member of the Staten Island University Hospital and one of it’s founders. There is a bronze plaque today at the entrance in his memory. He was also a long time member of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce serving as its President from 1983 – 1985 and past-president of the South Shore Lions Club, and also served on the board of Eger Health Care and Rehabilitation Center. He was a founding member of the South Shore Band, in which he played the trombone, and a founding member of the South Shore Swim Club. He was a parishioner of St. Clare’s R.C. Church in Great Kills, where he served as an usher for Sunday mass since 1956.”
Cousin Frank passed away on November 3, 2013 at age 89. He had been in the office on Amboy Road just the Monday before. His obituary was in the New York Times and all the local papers with tributes from the Staten Island Hospital Board of Directors and the Chamber of Commerce.
He left a successful company still run by his children and grandchildren. The journey was begun by a poor man in Italy who could barely read and write Italian, let alone English, who got on a boat with a new wife and three children and never saw his home country again. They had five more in a cold water flat on Broome Place heated by a coal stove in the kitchen.
In 1941 they shared what little they had when Laura took my mom in off the street when she had no where else to go.
Our family has been represented in every war from World War I to Vietnam.
My brother and I made a living on Wall Street and at 71 years old, now living in Manhattan with his wife, still makes the short trip to his office everyday. He has 2 years to go on his current contract. Maybe he will retire; maybe not.
My daughter is a prosecutor here in Florida . A nephew is a successful lawyer and a niece is a senior project manager at Western Union. A second cousin is Chairman of a major engineering company and world renown engineer in his own right. Another second cousin is a major broker in the NY commercial real estate market and established scholarships for the disadvantaged at Cardinal Spellman high school in the Bronx which she attended as a teen. A niece works at the offices of one of my former corporate employers and married a young movie maker who has trained and worked under DeNiro.
All of us, including our children have been responsible citizens notwithstanding that we came here with nothing but the dream of opportunity – the dream of a chance unavailable to us in our home countries.
It’s been a long time since I last saw Uncle Vito and cousin Frank.
When I was discharged from the service in 1967 my wife and I purchased our first home just a short walk from the office of Scaran Oil; Staten Island was still a prairie. We were shopping at the A & P for our weekly groceries and while standing in the check-out line my wife noticed an old man staring at us. He was close and began speaking to her which made her uncomfortable. She poked me and whispered “There some old man staring at us!” I turned around when I heard “Francesco! How are you!” It was my Uncle Vito, smiling.
Cousin Frank and I got together with a couple of other cousins and aunts over cake and coffee when I was in the midst of doing my genealogy research on our family history. He gave me the picture of Antonia, his grandmother.
Our family has always believed in paying it forward. There are those just arriving who are making this journey. Here’s wishing they too find a home and their dreams here in America. When you read ignorant quips about how immigrants contribute nothing to the greatness that is America,show them this post.
Cousin Frank in an interview with the Staten Island Advance.