Tony Passacantando grew up poor in a small village in Abruzzo in central Italy where residents are known to be "forte e gentile," or strong and gentle. A grade-school dropout, he immigrated to the United States, made a living for himself and sent his three sons through college. In tribute, they provided 24-hour care for him during his final years.
Passacantando worked a variety of blue-collar jobs at Underwood Typewriter the Carlin Co. and others, and ended up as chief custodian of a school in Wethersfield. For additional income, he bought rental properties in Hartford.
Passacantando, a resident of Newington, died at age 90 on April 28 of respiratory failure.
He was born Dec. 17, 1922, to Eliseo and Giovanna Passacantando, who tended a small subsistence farm. As a youngster he attended schools four days and week, and on Fridays he would take crops to the market. In fifth grade, he dropped out to help his family full time.
When World War II began, he was drafted, and served in the Italian army until he was captured in 1943 and spent two years in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. For months, his family did not know if he had survived. Work at the camp was hard, disease was rampant, and often the prisoners lived on the potato peels discarded by the guards, his family members said. But Passacantando's friendliness overcame the hostility of one German civilian, who helped save his life.
When he returned home, Passacantando joined the elite Guardia di Finanza police force, where he worked for nearly 10 years. One day, he offered his umbrella to a young lady during a rain storm and they began a romance that was interrupted when Irma Gallucci's family moved to the U.S. The couple continued to correspond, and Irma urged Passacantando to come to America, and prepared the necessary papers for him.
More than five years later, his visa came through and the couple was married in 1954.
After arriving in Hartford, Passacantando worked as a manual laborer. After their children were born, he worked the first shift while his wife worked the second shift, and they alternated taking care of the young ones.
Passacantando had values that now seem almost quaint. He believed in buying only when he had cash. "The old farmer's mentality," said their son Al (short for Eliseo). "You have enough, you buy it."
In 1958, Tony bought his first rental property, a six-family apartment on Ward Street in Hartford. That was followed by a three-family house, then an eight-family apartment building. For these purchases, he obtained loans, but he reduced the costs by doing most of the renovation work himself.
The family lived in the South End of Hartford, and Tony sent his sons to Catholic schools.
"On Saturdays, all my friends went to the cartoons," said Mark Passacantando, the youngest son. He and his brothers made the rounds of the rental properties, doing the plumbing and electrical work, shoveling snow and painting. "That work ethic got instilled early on," he said.
Tony got a job as custodian of what is now the Silas Deane Middle School in Wethersfield, where he worked for 17 years, including eleven as head custodian.
"I admired very much his work ethic, his loyalty and his pride," said Richard Zanini, former superintendent of schools in Wethersfield. "He was satisfied with nothing but the best."
After retiring at 69, Passacantando continued to drive his pickup truck to work as a maintenance man until he was 83.
His sons all went on to higher education. Al won an appointment to West Point; Mark went to the University of Connecticut and earned an MBA at Boston University; Bruno, after UConn, became a CPA.
"They didn't want us to work so hard physically," Al of his parents. "They thought education was the key to a good life in America."
Work consumed most of Passacantando's life. "There was no television, no golf, no tennis," Al said. "He liked work."
It also helped that everyone liked him; from the children at the Silas Deane school to the nurses at the hospital. "People held him in very high regard," Mark said.
He retained some Italian customs. Each fall, he bought enough grapes to make 150 gallons of wine. When the whole family gathered, the traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes was served on Christmas Eve (though the women did almost all the work, Al said.) In his suburban garden, he had apple, cherry, pear and peach trees, plus a large vegetable garden.
In addition to his wife and three sons, he is survived by two granddaughters.
After Passacantando had a stroke in 2006, his sons alternated caring for him so he was never alone, and they eased up on their work to make time for him. They felt he exemplified the strength and gentleness of his native Abruzzo.
"It's amazing how that phrase captures my dad's character," Mark said.