For nearly four decades, educator, author, scholar and Dominican Republic native Dr. Daisy Cocco De Filippis has been a leader in the advancement of educational opportunities and a pioneer in the field of Dominican women studies. President of Naugatuck Valley Community College (NVCC) in Waterbury and Danbury since 2008, De Filippis has built a legacy of shared community vision, student-centeredness, collaboration and civic engagement, and under her guidance student retention has risen, enrollment has increased and graduation awards have more than doubled. In September 2016, NVCC was named one of the Top 25 community colleges nationwide in advancing opportunities for low-income students. Dr. De Filippis holds a Ph.D. in Spanish language and a M. Phil. in Spanish literature from the Graduate School and University Center of CUNY, an M.A. in Spanish literature and a B.A. in Spanish and English Literatures from Queens College, CUNY. In 2016, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in the Humanities by the University of Santo Domingo, the oldest university in the Americas, in recognition of her contributions to Dominican, Caribbean and Dominican Diaspora literature.
One of the world’s leading entrepreneurs, Adnan Durrani is Chief Executive Officer of American Halal/Saffron Road Foods in Stamford and President of Condor Ventures, Inc., a strategic investor in natural food companies. Saffron Road is the first Halal product to be sold nationally by Whole Foods and is now sold in 15,000 food stores in the U.S. Mr. Durrani has been recognized as one of the entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who engineered "20 Ideas That Changed the Way the World Does Business." He founded Vermont Pure/Crystal Rock Water Co., the second-largest bottled water company in the Northeast, and was a financial partner of Stonyfield Farms, Inc., the leading organic yogurt brand. He was also a principal of Delicious Brands, Inc., which became the nation’s fifth largest cookie brand. A graduate of Columbia University, Mr. Durrani is Chairman Emeritus of Columbia’s Board of Visitors of the Graduate School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He is the former Director, Treasurer and Finance Chair of READ (Rural Education and Development Enterprise) Nepal, a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded organization devoted to building libraries in rural communities in Nepal and India.
Since moving to New Haven in 1961, the Koh Family has made monumental contributions in the fields of international relations, health and human rights. As South Korean natives, the late Kwang Lim Koh and his wife, 89-year-old Dr. Hesung Chun Koh, dedicated their lives to inspiring cross-cultural exchange, Kwang Lim as former South Korean Ambassador to the U.S. and Professor and Director of the Center for Area and Interdisciplinary Studies at CCSU, Hesung Chun as Co-Founder, Chair and President Emerita of East Rock Institute, the first U.S. institution dedicated to Korean Diaspora culture. Their six accomplished children include: Dr. Howard Kyongju Koh, the Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School, is a former Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services and Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Health; Harold Hongju Koh, Sterling Professor of International Law and former Dean at Yale Law School, and former Legal Adviser and Assistant Secretary for Human Rights at the U.S. Dept. of State, is a leading expert in public and private international law, national security law and human rights; and Jean Kyongun Koh Peters, the Sol Goldman Clinical Professor of Law at Yale Law School and an expert in children, families and the law.
Born in Bagrowo, Poland in 1930, the late Dr. Stanislaw Milewski overcame wartime oppression as a child to become a leading ophthalmologist, mentor and humanitarian in the U.S. Deported with family to Russia in 1940, Dr. Milewski made his way to the U.S. in 1959, earning medical degrees and completing various internships, residencies and fellowships at esteemed medical centers including Leicester Royal Infirmary (England) and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary of Harvard Medical School among others. He established Retina Consultants, P.C., in Manchester in the 1970s, and was Chief of Ophthalmology at Manchester Memorial Hospital for 15 years, where he was the first to perform vitreoretinal surgery in the Hartford area. Dr. Milewski established the Milewski Polish Studies Lecture Endowment Fund at CCSU, the Milewski Scholarship Endowment Fund at the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York, and over the years donated nearly half a million dollars in ophthalmic equipment to various universities in Poland. Among his many awards were the Cavalier Cross of Merit of the Republic of Poland in 1996 and the Outstanding Physician Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 from ECHN, Manchester Memorial Hospital and Rockville General Hospital.
(The Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame would like to thank Kamila Herzog and her granddaughter, Cassandra Skobrak, for their assistance in preparing the following story about 2017 IHHF Inductee Franciszek “Frank” Herzog.)
Franciszek Herzog unfortunately did not live long enough to appreciate the honor of being inducted into the Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame, but his life was never about recognition; he lived to help people, especially children.
Franek was born in Poland, the third son in a military family, and lived there until World War II. His father, also Franciszek and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Polish Army, was engaged in the war from the very beginning. Unfortunately, the Polish Army had to capitulate, at which time his father was captured by the Russians and taken to a POW camp with about 4,000 other officers. It was later discovered that there were three camps, and altogether about 15,000 officers, policemen and other government employees were murdered there in what became known as the Katyn Massacre.
Meanwhile, Franek, his mother, and his elder brothers Waclaw and Tadeusz were deported to Siberia. His mother died there due to a shortage of food and medication, leaving the boys orphaned.
After their mother's passing, the Herzog brothers learned that a Polish army was being formed in Southern Russia, along with Polish orphanages. The three brothers managed to make their way to Tashkent, in Southern Kazakhstan, where Waclaw joined the Navy. Tadeusz, 15 at the time, and Franek, 11, were taken into the orphanage and evacuated to India. The conditions of the camp were spartan; Americans would consider these conditions deplorable, but after what the Herzogs had been through it seemed liked heaven. Franek’s reminiscences of life in India were always fond ones, and it was during this time that he discovered Polish Scouting, which would become a lifelong passion.
In 1947, Franek was able to join his brothers in England, but he was unsure what to do next. Being 16, he had few choices for work. Fortunately, fate led him to a scouting instructor from India who helped him gain acceptance to a Polish High School, which was formed especially for displaced people. He finished high school and prepared to take English exams which would allow him to go to college.
The prospect of attending college was anything but simple; although education was free, he still needed somewhere to live and the ability to support himself. A grant gave him enough for the two years of college, and he secured lodging in a very small and basic room. After the war, in London, housing was very difficult to find; some parts were in ruins and a lot of food was still rationed. Franek managed to survive, though, grateful for what he had. After college, he began working as an electrical draftsman while continuing his education by taking evening classes. It was about this time that he met Kamila Mikucka and they were married in 1956. Their daughter, Ivona, was born in 1959, and they remained in London until 1962.
Franek’s involvement in Polish Scouting continued. In addition to managing his family, work and studies, he always found time for the scouts, attending weekly meetings with his troop and helping to run summer camps.
In 1962, after seeing an advertisement for a position with Northeast Utilities in Connecticut, Franek and his wife decided that they were ready for a new adventure. Franek submitted his resume, got an interview in London, and was offered a job as an electrical engineer. In a few months, the family moved to Connecticut. Shortly after, while attending the Pulaski Parade in Hartford, they were surprised to see a group of Polish Scouts marching in the parade. Franek instantly made some connections with the scouts, and a few months later started helping.
In 1974, Franek learned of a site in Palmer, Massachusetts, which would be perfect as a camp for the younger children. He made arrangements, recruited some help, and began running an annual two-week summer camp which continues to this day. Each year the group grew larger and with it, the demand for more help. Not many people volunteered to use a week or two of their vacation time working with the scouts, but for 37 years Franek organized the camp and did much of the work on his own. He always believed that scouting, no matter the nationality, was valuable in building character and solid citizens.
He also firmly believed that people should always know their roots, and was dedicated to learning all he could about his own. After discovering that his father and uncle were executed in a POW camp in Russia, it was Franek’s own extensive research that determined they were killed in the Katyn Massacre, a series of mass executions of Polish nationals conducted by Soviets. Although the mass graves were discovered in 1943, cover-ups refusing to implicate Russia stayed in place until 1952. At that time, the United States remained silent on the matter. Franek was unrelenting in his efforts to gain acknowledgement and an apology from the United States for its role in keeping word of Russian involvement suppressed.
For all his devotion to Poland, Franek was a fine American, happy in his adopted country. He was deeply proud of his family: his wife, Kamila, was always supportive in any way she could be and is a model of diligence, notably making their home in Hebron into a veritable Eden. His daughter Ivona is the wife of a Naval officer who worked his way up through the ranks after enlisting, serving his country for 39 years before retiring with the rank of Captain. Though this meant picking up and moving every few years to such places as Scotland, Hawaii and Guam, they embraced the chances to experience so many different surroundings and cultures. Two of his grandchildren also chose military routes. The oldest, Stephen, joined the Marines, doing two tours in Iraq as well as two years stationed in Okinawa. The youngest, Greg, also joined the Marines, going through Officer Candidate School, and is currently waiting to see what life will have in store for him. The middle grandchild, Cassie, recently completed her Master's degree in Library and Information Science. They are all exemplary citizens who learned much about Poland, Polish customs and life from their grandfather, whom they loved and respected.
Because of his background as an orphan, and being helped by so many people and organizations along the way to build character and become a good and productive citizen, Franek felt his duty was to give back and do the same for others in whatever ways he could. Together with his friends, he organized help for poor families in Eastern Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. He also organized help to Polish Scouting in Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania. Helping others was always his focus, throughout his entire life.
Ann Horelik,, who was brought on by Franek in 1974 to help run his scout camp in Palmer, remembers Franek fondly.
“Frank loved children, and he loved everything to do with scouting,” she says. “He was a very caring, very loving man. He demanded respect, he got it, and the children loved him.
“I think because of his experience, having been an orphan himself, he understood how much children needed love, nurturing and guidance. And he devoted his life to providing it.”
I’ll tell you a story that will blow your mind away.”
As Daniel Okolica prepares to tell a tale about his Dad, the late Rabbi Henry Okolica, one can sense the enormous love and respect he has for this diminutive giant of a man, or “Everyone’s Rabbi” as he was fondly called by legions of admirers. Daniel’s story captures the essence of his father, a man who embraced and inspired all of humanity regardless of faith, background or station in life.
“I was about 5 years old and we were living in Daytona Beach at the time,” says 72-year-old Daniel recalling his father, one of six 2017 inductees of Connecticut’s Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame. “A man was murdered in our community by his son, and the son was in prison. Remarkably my father took me with him to visit this man, this murderer, in the prison.
“There must have been 20, 30 convicts in a big pen. All the men were down to their underwear, there was no air conditioning. It was stifling. We saw one convict on the floor in a pool of urine,” he continues. “And my father finds this man, this son who killed his father, and speaks with him, counsels him, gives him support. Here I am, 5 years old at the time, witnessing this. Nowadays I’m sure no one would be allowed to bring a 5-year-old into such an environment.
“But this is just the way it was with my father,” Daniel concludes. “It did not make any difference to him who anyone was. You could be deranged. You could be a murderer. You could be the worst of the worst. To my father, you were simply a human being – and all that mattered to him was helping humanity.”
Rabbi Henry Okolica, who passed away in September at age 103 having spent a century doing God’s work, stated on more than one occasion that his mission in life to serve others was a calling, shaped by his good fortune in escaping Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. This coming week will mark the 79th anniversary of the infamous Nazi persecution campaign Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass,” an overnight campaign of tyranny against Jews which Okolica survived.
Rabbi Okolica’s flee from Germany was fraught with twists, turns and, ultimately, good fortune. Having managed to gain a visa to England, he was nevertheless detained at the Frankfort train station and spent the night in a Gestapo jail cell.
“He saw the beatings, heard all the screams, the blood-curdling cries,” says Daniel. “My mother’s father, who never made it out of Germany, mortgaged his home to the Gestapo to gain my father’s freedom.”
“God took care of me,” Rabbi Okolica would often say in later years. “I didn’t escape Germany to live my own life. I escaped because God commanded me to be his helper.”
Okolica arrived in New York City in 1940, and married his wife of more than 70 years, Lisbeth, the following year. He answered his calling in pulpits in New York, Washington and Florida before settling in New Britain in 1960, assuming leadership of Congregation Tephereth Israel on Winter Street.
Rabbi Okolica’s presence was felt in all walks of life within New Britain and beyond for the 50 years he was at the helm of the congregation. As if leading a synagogue of some 500 congregants in the then-bustling Hardware City wasn’t enough, he was omnipresent within numerous city and community organizations. He served as the Jewish chaplain at Central Connecticut State University, as well as for the City’s fire and police departments and numerous organizations, always offering a kind word, sage counsel or spiritual guidance.
The Rabbi and Lisbeth became renowned within the community and beyond for their Shabbat hospitality. The doors of their home would be open each Sunday to welcome friends and strangers from all walks of life and from near and far. The guests might include prominent community leaders or someone struggling to make ends meet – it did not matter to the Okolicas.
“It was a cavalcade of humanity,” Daniel recalls.
Shortly after relocating to New Britain, the Rabbi began visiting the Veteran’s Home and Hospital in Rocky Hill. Seeing the desperate help needed by so many veterans with alcohol and substance abuse issues, he waged a personal campaign to gain space at the facility to start a rehabilitation program, an effort that was not openly embraced by officials at the outset. The Rabbi was so devoted to the cause and helping veterans in need, he would often sleep at the facility overnight.
Today, the rehab program Rabbi Okolica fought so hard to establish has become the Connecticut VA’s Fellowship House, a fully staffed recovery support program that has helped thousands of veterans.
“He had a way of speaking to the hearts of all. Veterans felt he was someone who could hear them,” says former Connecticut Veterans Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz. “He was a pioneer. He got everybody thinking about how we could do this better.”
For nearly 40 years, Rabbi Okolica hosted the weekly “Jewish Faith” program locally produced by WVIT Channel 30. Former U.S. Congresswoman Nancy Johnson – who made her first public appearance on the show – recalled the Rabbi fondly in an interview with The Hartford Courant in 2003.
“Of all the religious leaders he was the most dogged about reaching across lines of faith to build a community,” she recalled. “Back when there were deep lines between Catholics and other Christians in New Britain, he was the one who knew that everyone had to come together. He was an activist and a unifier, profoundly accepting and loving.”
New Britain Herald Publisher Michael Schroeder, who came to New Britain in 2009, met the Rabbi through the Rotary Club and formed an immediate bond.
“I was taken by the wisdom he shared whenever he spoke. He brought a warmth to whatever room he was in, and I learned something important about life every time I heard him speak,” says Schroeder, a member of the Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame Planning Committee.
The close, personal bonds with those from all walks of life that Rabbi Okolica was able to create during his lifetime are perfectly captured within the Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017, through none other than fellow inductees Angelo Tomasso, Sr. and his son, Angelo, Jr. The Tomassos may have had far different backgrounds and lives than the Rabbi, but with their church, St. Ann’s, just a stone’s throw from the synagogue, they developed mutual admiration and a close friendship lasting many years.
“Our pastor held Rabbi Okolica in high regard, and when our church held a tribute for our pastor, the keynote speaker was the Rabbi,” said Angelo Tomasso, Jr.’s son, Michael Tomasso, in a 2011 interview with the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. “We would get a call from the Rabbi about a family in town in trouble and we would help them, together.”
While Rabbi Okolica’s passing just weeks ago has left a void in the community, his legacy of love for mankind is one that will live on, says Schroeder.
“It is safe to say that through his lifetime, Rabbi Okolica touched the lives of millions,” says Schroeder. “He was one of a kind, through the final days of his life.”
(Photos courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford.)
Bessy Reyna was sitting in a taxi cab at JFK Airport in 1968, a young 20-something foreigner just arrived from Panama speaking thickly accented English. It was late, she was tired, a stranger in a foreign land thoroughly alone, and she needed somehow, someway to get to South Hadley, Mass., and Mount Holyoke College.
And she had $40 in her pocket.
It was at that moment that Bessy, a 2017 inductee of the Connecticut Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame, experienced – fortunately – the kindness of mankind. In a country that can sometimes seem cold and unwelcoming to foreigners, Bessy learned that day that perhaps, just perhaps, her adventure in a new world might turn out OK.
“How much would it cost to go to South Hadley, Massachusetts?’ Bessy asked the amused cabbie, a middle-aged Italian man. “Do you have $250?” he asked.
It took a moment before Bessy realized the man was kidding. In fact, Bessy had a ticket for a connecting flight, and the cabbie kindly escorted her to the proper terminal, carried her luggage, called the family in Holyoke that was going to pick Bessy up, and ensured that she was on her way safely.
When Bessy tried to give him the money she had, he refused and said, “If my daughter ever found herself in your situation, I would like to think that someone, somewhere would be willing to help.”
“This incredible man took care of me,” Bessy recalls in wonderment, nearly 50 years after the fact. “So today, when I do something for someone, I am paying him back. The kindness he showed to me was so extraordinary.”
This story was first told by Bessy, an award-winning, bilingual poet, activist, lecturer and journalist known for her strong voice on a wide range of social issues of the day including women’s rights and on behalf of the gay community, in the first column she ever wrote for The Hartford Courant. Bessy spent nearly a decade, from 2000 to 2009, as an opinion columnist for The Courant, and it was this column that intrigued Editorial Page Editor Carolyn Lumsden enough to hire her as a freelancer.
“It was such a wonderful piece of writing, such a touching story, we just had to bring her on board,” recalls Lumsden. “She knows how to write, to make abstract ideas concrete. Bessy really has a gift for drawing you into a story and sharing a larger moral message.”
Born in Cuba and raised in Panama, Bessy Reyna has lived a full life giving voice to those who have no voice. Driven to learn and explore the world beyond her home in Panama, Bessy was attending college in Panama when she learned of a scholarship opportunity in the United States. She applied and was accepted at Mount Holyoke College.
“I needed an intellectual challenge that I wasn’t getting in Panama, and this was my way out,” she says.
Bessy graduated Magna Cum Laude from Mount Holyoke in 1970, and went on to earn a master’s degree in child development (1972) and law degree (1982) from the University of Connecticut. She continued her pursuit of education in the United States for as long as she could via her student visa to avoid having to return to Panama.
“At that time in Panama there was a military regime and I felt I would be in danger if I returned,” she says. “A lot of my friends were being put in jail or exiled.”
Ultimately, Bessy determined she needed to stay in the U.S. permanently. Because she was born in Cuba she was able to obtain her green card through political asylum.
It was also around this time that Bessy openly embraced her identity as a gay woman, another factor in her wanting to remain in the U.S. She had met her future spouse, Susan Holmes, and did not wish to live a lie in a part of the world where, she says, homosexuality is not as readily accepted as it is in this country. Her choice would prove to benefit countless others.
“When I was writing for The Courant, I wrote a lot of pro-gay articles. As a grad student, I was one of the first students to openly speak to different classes,” Bessy says. “Back then, people were so frightened. There would always be one or two students coming up to me after I spoke, asking ‘can I talk to you?’ That, to me, meant a whole lot, that I could be a part of helping them feel better about themselves.”
Bessy played a leading role in the establishment of both the Rainbow Center and Women’s Center at the University of Connecticut more than 40 years ago, both of which continue today as vital resources and thriving components of the UConn experience.
Bessy is the author of two bilingual books of poetry and has been published in numerous magazines and journals. In 2014, she was the producer of a two-week poetry festival, "Hartford Loves Poetry," which brought poetry to every neighborhood in the city and culminated with a reading by immigrants of poems in over 20 different languages.
Bessy currently serves as arts editor for the Hispanic newspaper Identidad Latina, and is a contributor to www.CTLatinoNews.com. She is a frequent lecturer; has participated in international poetry festivals in Nicaragua, Cuba and the United States; and has taught writing workshops as far away as Guatemala. As a former Master Teaching Artist for the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism, and the Partners in Education of the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Bessy has presented poetry workshops to children in urban schools in the Hartford area.
Bessy’s literary and arts awards and commendations are many, including the Connecticut Center for the Book Lifetime Achievement in Service to the Literary Community Award (2009); recognition from the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education (2009); the Inaugural Diversity Award presented by the Vice Provost for Multicultural and International Affairs at the University of Connecticut (2006); and the One Woman Makes A Difference Award from the Connecticut Women's Education and Legal Fund (2007).
In 2001, Bessy was named Latina Citizen of the Year by the State of Connecticut Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission and in 2012 she was one of 10 women honored by the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame. In 2016, the San Juan Center in Hartford honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to Latino Arts in Connecticut, and she was one of 16 immigrants honored by the Immigrant and Refugee Association of Connecticut.
Bessy’s close friend, Dr. Estela Lopez, a fellow native of Cuba and retired provost of the State of Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education, admires her good friend for her lifetime of making a difference.
“I think you have to be a strong person to face all the things Bessy has faced, including being a gay woman, being a poet when it is hard to make a living out of poetry, coming to this country to find herself and then defending those who need to be defended because nobody else does it for them,” Dr. Lopez says. “Bessy is brave, someone who is always giving to those who do not have. It’s in her DNA.”
Life was beautiful but challenging for Angelo Tomasso, Sr., as a youngster growing up in the Abruzzo Mountain village of Abbateggio, Italy, snow-capped peaks to the north, the Adriatic Sea to the east, Rome a distant two and a half hours to the west – and little more than stone beneath his feet in a mountainous region where making a living was difficult at best.
“It’s an absolutely beautiful place, but the land there is very hard to cultivate. It’s all rocks,” says his grandson, Michael Tomasso. “There are almost no trees, and the ones they have are protected because they are needed to hold up the sides of the mountain to prevent erosion.”
Given his roots, it’s no wonder that the resourceful Tomasso, a 2017 inductee of the Connecticut Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame, found a way to turn stone into fortune – only doing so here in America. He arrived at age 17 in 1910, served his new country in World War I, and found work in the railroad industry – quickly moving up from day laborer to foreman – before managing to cobble enough resources together to start his own construction company, Angelo Tomasso, Inc., in New Britain in 1923.
He started his new company with exactly one piece of equipment – a steam shovel. And it was all he needed.
An industrious, driven and opportunistic man, Angelo Tomasso, Sr., was smart enough to know not to take opportunity for granted. His legendary stamina, work ethic and determination to succeed and provide for his family are captured by the tale of his winning one particular contract in his company’s earliest days.
As the story goes, Angelo got wind of a large contract being on the table to construct the foundation of a new Hartford County government building. The catch was, the contract would be awarded to the first contractor to arrive on site.
Angelo proceeded to get in his lone steam shovel and promptly drive all night from New Britain to Hartford to arrive on site along with the sunrise – ahead of every other contractor, of course. Angelo won the contract, and the seeds of the Tomasso legend were sown.
For all his industriousness, a large factor in Angelo Tomasso, Sr.’s success was the role his wife, Nazzarena, played. “My grandmother was very bright and a very strong person,” says Michael. “And she was a big part of my grandfather’s success.”
Michael is fond of telling a story that demonstrates both his grandfather’s resourcefulness and his grandmother’s role in the family’s success.
“They made a great team,” he says. “She went to high school and could read and write, while my grandfather could not. Here’s a man who learned English just by listening, and he certainly did not know how to do math – yet he had a great business mind.
“So, when he would bid on a job, he would excuse himself from the meeting to go to the bathroom – only what he did was find a phone to call my grandmother,” Michael laughs. “He’d give her the numbers, she would do the math, he’d go back to the meeting with the requisite answers and he’d make the deal. A handshake and off he went.”
Early business success notwithstanding, Tomasso faced near catastrophe like so many others during the Great Depression. “Fortunately, he had built up some reserves and he owned some land,” says Michael. “He had his quarry in New Britain at the time, he was able to hang onto that, but he went through hard times and nearly lost everything. People would wait in his driveway in the morning begging him for work.”
It was Angelo Tomasso, Sr., who excavated the foundations for the Fafnir Bearing Company in New Britain, one of the largest employers in the bustling Hardware City. It was Angelo Tomasso, Sr., who built most of the roads in New Britain. It was Angelo Tomasso, Sr., who built the first section of New York’s Taconic Parkway. It was Angelo Tomasso, Sr., who was responsible for the original construction of Brainard Airport in Hartford. And it was under the leadership of Angelo Tomasso, Sr., in 1950 that the company set a record by transporting 797 tons of blacktop 25 miles in one day to the Bradley Field Airport.
Successful businessman that he was, Angelo Tomasso had a soft side, as well, and it was his generosity toward others and concern for his community that began a long family and company tradition of supporting charitable causes in New Britain and beyond.
“He was an extremely generous man, always helping others, always giving something away,” says Michael. “One winter he came home in the middle of the night, and my grandmother asks, ‘Where’s your coat?’ So, he says, ‘I’m not cold.’ To which she replies, ‘Wait a minute, I want to know where your coat is.’
“So, he finally tells her, ‘There was a man who didn’t have a coat and he was freezing, so I gave it to him.’ Growing up, there were always stories like that about my grandfather.”
Angelo, Sr. was an influential leader within many ethnic organizations in the city, and was active politically, as well, in the Democratic party. He took great pride in his adopted hometown of New Britain and would regularly march in the city’s holiday parades. He even befriended Franklin D. Roosevelt when the future president was governor of New York.
The Tomasso family learned first-hand the dangers of the difficult, laborious business they had chosen when in 1949, at his new quarry in Plainville, Angelo was struck in the head by a large stone during a construction accident. While he recovered and continued to run the company with the help of his wife and four sons, Angelo, Jr., George, Victor and Bill, things were never quite the same. Angelo Tomasso, Sr., died three years later in 1952 at the age of 59.
Though they never had a chance to meet their grandfather, Michael and his five siblings, Nancy, Paul, James, William and Carolyn, are deeply appreciative of the enormous legacy their grandfather left and the influence he has had on their lives and the lives of so many others. Asked about where his grandfather’s commitment to helping others came from, Michael says it was all rooted in his deep appreciation for the opportunities America provided to him.
“He knew he was one of the fortunate ones to realize the American Dream,” says Michael. “He experienced extreme hardship, and knew that he was blessed to have made it here, found work and built a family. It engendered a tremendous empathy on his part for others who struggle, and he wanted to share his blessings with others.”
Following in the footsteps of one’s father who happens to be a highly successful businessman and iconic community leader is a monumental challenge for any son or daughter, one that few can meet. In the case of Angelo Tomasso, Jr., that only begins to describe the challenge he faced in August, 1952.
Angelo’s larger-than-life father, Angelo, Sr., had just passed away prematurely at age 59 after a brief illness, only three years after being badly injured during a tragic construction accident at the Tomasso Company’s Plainville quarry. Without a leader, Angelo, Sr.’s oldest son – at age 27 and only a few years removed from his decorated service in World War II – was named to head the company, and run it along with his brothers Victor, George and Bill.
“People see the Tilcon Company today and it’s hard to believe, but back then when our grandfather died, there was almost no money in the bank and my father, along with his brothers, had to take this company over,” says Michael Tomasso, son of Angelo, Jr., one of six 2017 inductees into the Connecticut Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame.
“They’re basically all kids in their 20s and it was not an easy start,” Michael continues. “But the hard work, the ethics, the reputation my grandfather had built meant everything to the family and they were not going to let it fail. They figured it out and made it work.”
Making it work is an understatement. Led by Angelo, Jr., the Tomasso Company went on to achieve new heights in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and assume a corporate community leadership role, that Angelo, Sr., could have only dreamed of.
Perhaps it was all destined to be in that tiny third-floor apartment at the top of Broad Street where Angelo, Jr., was born in 1925, only two years after his father started his construction company. He was born prematurely and not expected to live, but even then, the Tomasso family determination emerged as Junior not only lived, but went on to thrive and succeed in life beyond anyone’s imagination.
Like many youngsters inspired to defend their country during World War II, Angelo, Jr., enlisted in the U.S. Navy – without his parents’ knowledge – at the age of 17 following graduation from New Britain High School. He was a communications officer in the Amphibious Corps aboard the USS LST 925, serving in the South Pacific, and earned the Military Order of the Purple Heart for his valor.
“They were in the Leyte Gulf during the liberation of the Philippine islands, when their ship was hit by Japanese kamikazes that crippled the ship,” says son Bill Tomasso. “He was fortunate.”
Having displayed leadership qualities, Angelo, Jr., was asked following the battle to attend officer’s training, and upon arriving back on the west coast he boarded a train and rode cross country to Auburn University in Alabama.
“He loved it there, he was with a lot of other veterans and there was a great camaraderie amongst them,” Bill says. “They had that commonality of having experienced war. He met my mother there, earned his engineering degree, and he wanted to become an architect when he got the call.”
The “call” was from Connecticut in 1949. Angelo, Sr.’s quarry accident meant that Junior was needed back home to help run the company, and his life changed forever. In the ensuing years under Angelo, Jr.’s stewardship, the company was ideally positioned to reap the rewards of the growing American Baby Boomer economy. It was the ‘50s, suburbia beckoned young families and the automobile was king. Someone needed to build all those highways, and the Tomasso Company was happy to oblige.
During this period of rapid growth Angelo’s penchant – like his father’s – for working hard paid off as opportunity after opportunity arose. The company became legendary for its highway construction expertise, and it was the Tomasso Company that was largely responsible for the building of Interstates 91 and 84, and Routes 2 and 9.
In 1968, the Tomasso Company received wide acclaim for laying a mile of concrete each day on over three miles of Interstate 84 in Plainville, Farmington and New Britain. In 1972, a joint venture led by Angelo Tomasso, Jr., set a world record by laying 18,300 tons of bitumen in 18 hours at Bradley Airport, repaving a major runway in record time with only a small window of time available to accomplish the job and using 171 pieces of equipment.
The airport project was something Angelo Tomasso, Jr., took great pride in. For him, it was always about accomplishing the impossible, about pride in one’s work, delivering a project as promised. As his father would always say, “Get there early, work hard and make the product of the highest quality.”
“It was a challenge that went beyond profits and business,” he said at the time.
Eventually the company branched out into redevelopment and site projects, including corporate headquarters projects for such large enterprises as Emhart, Stanley Works, Aetna and Bristol Myers. The company was sold in 1972 to Ashland Resources, and in 1979 a British concern took over, creating Tilcon Tomasso and, eventually, Tilcon. Angelo, Jr., served as President and CEO until 1991, retired as Chairman in 2001 and, in 2015, passed away at the age of 90.
Today, the Tomasso legacy is carried on by the third generation of Tomassos – Angelo, Jr.’s sons Michael, William, Paul and James. The Tomasso Group includes real estate management company Tunxis Management, TBI Construction and TBI Development.
Angelo, Jr., became as renowned in New Britain and beyond for his philanthropy and community involvement as for his business success, taking the seeds of community engagement his father had sown to a new level. In 1996, he was named Man of the Year from the New Britain Press Club. In 1978, he received the National Jewish Hospital and Research Center Humanitarian Award. In 1986, he was named Citizen of the year from the New Britain Lodge of Elks. In 1988, he received the Golden Lion Award from the Order of the Sons of Italy. In 1996, he was honored by the Connecticut Association of Street and Highway Officials and received the Royal W. Thompson Lifetime Achievement Award. And in May of 1990 he received the Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from CCSU.
Retired Hospital of Central Connecticut President and CEO Larry Tanner, who considers Angelo Tomasso, Jr., one of the most influential people in his life, fondly recalls his mentor who served on the hospital’s board for decades.
“Angelo Tomasso, Jr., was part of a very small, unique group of incredibly philanthropic and civic minded leaders who make their communities better,” Tanner says. “He was somebody who touched almost every organization in town – and you usually didn’t hear about it. If some non-profit needed a new driveway put in, it just got done. That is the kind of man he was.”
At Angelo Tomasso, Jr.’s funeral service attended by hundreds, Michael Tomasso fondly recalled his father.
“Dad was deeply committed to equal rights for all people, He loved his hometown of New Britain and was proud of this community for welcoming anyone to realize the American Dream.
“In Italian, there is a Renaissance term ‘l’uomo completo’ – the complete man. Angelo Tomasso, Jr., was a complete man as a husband, father, uncle, grandfather, member of his church, community and in business. This was my father.”
M. Nawaz Wahla is not supposed to be sitting where he is today, on the bench as a State of Connecticut Superior Court judge. Remarkably, he is not even supposed to be in this country.
But fate sometimes has a great deal to do with how our lives – and callings – play out. And fate played an important role in Judge Wahla’s rise from a rural Pakistani village without water or electricity as a child, to the front lines in the Pakistan Army, shot and severely wounded in a border fight with ammunitions smugglers, to a seat on Connecticut’s Superior Court.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would practice law, or that I would even be coming to the United States,” says Judge Wahla, a 2017 inductee of the Connecticut Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame. “That injury became the turning point in my life,”
Judge Wahla’s remarkable journey began on a simple farm in the Punjab province of Pakistan. His father was a diligent farmer, and he had to work hard to care for Nawaz, and his eight brothers and sisters. There was no electricity, no running water, and life became even more difficult when Nawaz’s mother died only a few years after he was born.
“My father had no education. He could not read or write. It was my father who, knowing how hard life was for him, instilled in me the importance of education,” says Nawaz. “His pride in his children exceeded his means, and he did all he could to ensure I had the finest education possible.”
Nawaz ended up being the only one to attend college. While he worked hard to achieve the highest academic levels possible, it was his selection in 1972 to become a cadet at the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) that determined what he thought would be his lifelong career path. It was at the academy, equivalent to West Point and a training ground for officers in the Pakistan Army, where Nawaz embraced the notion of becoming a military officer for life.
Nawaz graduated from the PMA, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the artillery regiment and, while serving, enrolled in the University of Punjab Law College. By day, Nawaz would discharge his military duties, while his nights were filled with constitutional law, torts and contracts. Nawaz earned his law degree and went on to serve more than 17 years in the Pakistan Army.
“I was chasing the dream to become a general, like every officer does,” he says.
It was in 1986, posted on the border of Pakistan and Iran and commanding a platoon charged with stopping smugglers transporting Russian arms and ammunition into Pakistan, when Nawaz’s life changed.
“We were attacked by the smugglers and they outnumbered us,” he recalls. “There were 19 trucks coming in with ammunition, and we had seven soldiers. I was shot, once in the arm, once in my chest, and two of our troops were killed. My arm was shattered and a bullet was lodged just centimeters from my heart.”
Nawaz, who earned the Pakistani equivalent to the Purple Heart for his valor, spent nine months in the hospital. Doctors wanted to amputate his arm, but Nawaz’s wife Imtiaz (Amy) was unavailable to provide consent.
With nine months to think about what the future might hold, Nawaz – who already had a law degree – began to think about using it for a new career. “I never knew that degree would rescue my life.”
Nawaz and Amy embarked on what Nawaz calls their “global adventure,” relocating to the United States in 1990 along with their three young children, daughter Mehvish, son Sarosh and daughter Zulara, and enrolling at the University of Texas School of Law. He earned his Masters of Comparative Jurisprudence in 1991, and completed a prestigious internship at the International Court of Justice at The Hague Academy of International Law in The Netherlands in 1993.
Following The Hague internship, Nawaz returned to Texas and completed his Masters of Law degree (LLM), an advanced certification with global credibility, in 1998 at the University of Houston Law Center.
Nawaz was admitted to practice law in Connecticut in 1999, and opened a private practice in Hartford two years later. “Since that day,” says Nawaz, “I have learned more about the law than I ever thought possible.”
Upon his appointment by then Governor M. Jodi Rell in 2010 to become the first Muslim and Pakistani Superior Court judge in Connecticut history, Wahla testified before lawmakers during a confirmation hearing and shared with them his passion.
“When I arrived in these United States 22 years ago with my wife and three small children it was foreign and new. Now, with the passage of time, I can confidently conclude that the fateful decision I made was indeed the correct one,” he testified. “My legal education and practical experience over the years has given me a vast wellspring of knowledge upon which I can rely.
“If this day has just a touch of sadness in it for me, it is because my father is not here to share it,” he continued. “He taught me that no dream is too big to dream. It is a true testament to the spirit of this nation that the son of a rural farmer from Pakistan would be given such an opportunity to serve the State of Connecticut.”
Lawmakers were enthralled by Nawaz and his story, and afterward, then-State Senator Mary Ann Handley said, “He came from this impoverished, rural background and made his dream come true. He and his family are the perfect example of what America is supposed to be.”
Judge Wahla and Amy have set fine examples for their children, all adults now pursuing remarkable careers of their own. Both daughter Mehvish and son Sarosh attended the same University of Texas at Austin that their father did and are now practicing attorneys themselves. Their youngest child, daughter Zulara, pursued a different path, attending medical school at Fatima Jinnah Medical College in Pakistan and Cornell University. She is now a second-year resident at the University of Connecticut Health Center.
Even at this lofty point in his remarkable career, Judge Wahla is not yet done learning. This past July, he completed the rigorous Global Master of Arts Program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, a unique and exclusive program of intense study in global diplomacy. The Judge is contemplating what might be the next chapter and challenge in his life – might it be a diplomatic assignment with the Department of State? Only time – and fate – will tell.
“I am very humbled by the opportunities I have been given here in this country. I am proud of my Pakistani heritage, and proud to be an American,” says Judge Wahla. “I gave my blood for my home country of Pakistan, and I am willing to give 100 lives for my adopted country.”
“My journey has just begun.”
The Alverios were among the first Puerto Rican families to settle in New Britain in the mid-1950s, and have played an instrumental role in building and inspiring the Puerto Rican and Latino communities in central Connecticut ever since.
Growing up the youngest of three sons of Italian immigrant parents in depression-era New Britain during the 1930s, Nick DeNigris learned early and often that success in life was no guarantee.
Naeem Khalid knows all about life’s circumstances. In October, 1984, when he arrived in Houston, Texas, at age 26 from his native Pakistan, prepared to earn his Ph.D. in applied linguistics and/or follow in his father’s footsteps (Pakistan Royal Air Force) working in the aerospace industry, the school year was already well underway.
It begins in 1945, the year that Nowak was born in war-torn Poland. Life for the family of Catholic farmers in the post-World War II era was hard, with the land the Nowaks loved brutalized by years of war and the country under the thumb of Soviet communist rule.
Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky, born in 1889 in Kiev, became one of the earliest and most accomplished pioneers of aviation.
Igor Sikorsky, Jr. is the founder of the New England Air Museum and is trustee of the American Helicopter Museum in Pennsylvania.
Helen and Vincent Knapczyk’s lives were shaped by the maelstrom of World War II — the invasion of Poland, exile to Siberia, and escape from Russia with General Anders army.
Tariq Farid is founder and CEO of Edible Arrangements International, which pioneered the innovative business concept of artistically designed fresh fruit arrangements.
Harry Sitilides grew up on the Greek island of Aghia Kiriaki.
As its former President and CEO, Michael Guida shaped Guida’s Dairy into today’s successful company. One could say that Michael’s interest in dairy is in his blood.