September 25, 2017

The Retirement of Tony Damiano

Tony Damiano today on one of his daily morning walks

People can choose to make themselves valuable to an organization. They do it through their actions more than their words, by holding true to their commitments, by valuing those who work with them. That is the way Tony Damiano chose.

He started young with O&G, 22 years old, having served four years with the Marines. He came to love the people and the work and never left. It was a mutual appreciation that deepened with time. On December 31 of 2016, having trained those who would have to step in and do the work he’d been doing, Tony retired after 55 years with O&G.

He was raised in Thomaston, where he still lives, the son of a mason and a homemaker. His father, whose Italian name, Sebastiano, became simply Sam, was the first to demonstrate for Tony the work ethic that would define him through his long career. Sam showed his son, something especially true of first-generation Americans it seems, that self-taught was not second best. Tony recalls that after days at Oliver Wolcott learning the machine trade, and after having worked at a filling station until nine o’clock, and finally sitting at the kitchen table finishing trigonometry homework, he would ask his dad to check his answers. “My father probably never had more than an eighth grade education, but he could solve the problems in his own way. He’d come up with the same answers as me. I’d marvel. I’d say, ‘Pop, how’d you do that?’”

Sam worked for O&G as a mason. In 1962 he spoke with George Oneglia to see if O&G might have any work for his son coming home from the service with his wife, Dorothy, and their two-year- old son, Joey. (Joey, today, is in his 39th year with O&G, following Tony’s path as a mechanic and then plant supervisor.) George interviewed and hired him on the spot. “I told him I’d be there tomorrow morning.” As a mechanic supporting the building materials side of the company, work was demanding: there was a lot of construction to support. By 1965 Tony was moved out of the garage and began working at all the projects the company was undertaking. Later that year he was promoted to master mechanic where his education continued under Sonny Savanella. Six years later he was moved to building materials under George and Bob Oneglia, and by 1978 was promoted by Francis, Raymond and George to Assistant Vice President.

Francis, Raymond and George were powerful, company-growing personalities. They were men who mentored him and whom Tony respected. They passed along not just skills but their drive and their values. “The whole company became like a family to me,” he says, “and that’s what it always felt like.” Perhaps the greatest thing Tony was taught, not only by word but by seeing his mentors practice what they preached, was valuing the men and women moving the company forward – pulling on the rope in the same direction, as Tony says. “The thing they taught the most was respecting and appreciating all the people making the place run. That’s what they were built out of. It’s a people company with a tradition of caring for people. I can give you a couple of instances.”

One was the time he was working on the Norwalk High School as a master mechanic and was experiencing health issues that required repeated doctors visits during work days. He thought he caught a mistake when he called Savanella to say his paycheck covered 40 hours. “I didn’t put in forty hours, I told him, and he said, ‘Francis said to pay you.’” The checks continued to come that way. It’s just the kind of people they were, he says, and he never forgot it.

Another was the night Tony and mechanic Jack Riiska were out repairing a D8 disabled on a Route 8 project. The time was about 2 A.M. “I’m underneath the machine and Jack’s on top and it’s raining and we’re putting all the parts on and Jack says, ‘There’s headlights coming up the road.’ I crawled out and here comes George and Myra bringing us coffee and sandwiches at two in the morning. His wife came. Tremendous people. That’s a lesson on how to treat people. Never forgot that one, either.” He can relate names and dates and actions through all the years of growth in the company, the plants built or renovated, the acquisitions that began in 1971 and that continue. They appreciated that they could count on Tony through it all – “That was the important thing,” he says – and it was reciprocated. Tony acknowledges with a quaver in his otherwise steady voice the towering role his wife and partner Dorothy played through the decades. “I’m very, very fortunate to have her as my wife,” he smiles. “She took up all the slack. I couldn’t have done it without her support.” And his appreciation goes on. “Everybody has to understand no man is an island. For every success I had there were a lot of good people behind me. It took a lot of support from a lot of employees dedicated to the company. I would like to start mentioning names but I’d feel very bad if I offended anybody by not mentioning them.” He cannot resist, though, talking about one, Bud Svetz, a man of formidable size and strength with an equally outsize lexicon of curse words. Tony remembers one particular snowy day at lunch when Buddy invited him to punch him in the arm with everything he had. Tony threw himself into it, his own feet coming off the floor. “Buddy says to me, ‘Chief, is that as hard as you can hit?’ I said ‘That’s it, Bud,’ so he says, ‘Then don’t start no fights.’”At the end of the day it was Svetz’ loyalty that Tony most respected. “His heart was as big as his chest. You could call him in the middle of the night and he’d be there as fast as he could get dressed and drive over. You could count on him no matter what.” He was a man after Tony’s own heart.

“After all these years I still have nothing but respect for the whole Oneglia family. I always admired the way Francis, Raymond and George complemented each other’s abilities, much to the success of the company. They were great leaders who could bring the best out in everyone. When you stop and think about the construction accomplishments alone, plus the thousands of people O&G has employed over the years, plus the fact that lots of the people have been here 30 and 40 years – people don’t stay with companies that aren’t treating them well,” adding with his trademark chuckle and crinkly-eyed grin, “and they just treated me so damn good.”

TONY KEPT A MEMO PINNED TO A BOARD NEXT TO HIS DESK

Written by the late O&G President, Raymond A. Oneglia, it was titled, “Guidelines for training young people for executive positions in the construction industry.” He wrote, “Do not place too high an emphasis on education – the will and desire to work hard and succeed are much more important.” He suggested, instead, a course of hands-on study, a sort of O&G University, where one could “spend six months with …  Plant Manager/Superintendent  Tony  Damiano to learn everything related to setting up, maintaining and operating all our plants.” And spend time learning the other areas of operations under the tutelage of key personnel. “After all these months of learning, future executives of the construction industry would be considerably more educated than all the years a college education could teach – the people and areas of work … are the true education of this company.”