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. It was instilled in him that those who worked long, hard – and did well in school – would have the greatest opportunity to lead a rewarding life.
“My parents were from the small village of Turi just outside of Bari, Italy, on the Adriatic Sea,” says the 81-year-old DeNigris, a New Britain attorney and one of four 2016 inductees into Connecticut’s Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame. “It was farm country, and there really was very little education. I think my father went through second or third grade, that was the extent of it, and the rest of the time he worked on the farm.
“And once they came to America in the 1920s, my father worked constantly. He always prided himself on never taking accepting any public assistance and, even during the depression, finding a way to work enough to pay the bills.”
Dominic DeNigris was a laborer for many years at Union Manufacturing in New Britain, and his wife Rose stayed at home to raise the three boys, Emanuele, Oronzo and Nicholas, before working as a seamstress at American Bazaar once the boys got older. DeNigris fondly recalls his boyhood days on Daly Avenue in New Britain, a time when the family’s happiness was firmly rooted in the simple life.
“My mother could take a fifty pound sack of flour and some yeast cake and feed the whole neighborhood for a month,” he laughs. “Things like chick peas, fava beans, lentils, calamari – my mother would go to the store, they would just give her the calamari back in those days, didn’t cost a penny. She’d clean it, cook it with pasta and we’d have a nice meal for the whole family.”
After his much older brothers served in World War II, DeNegris began applying his parent’s work ethic at a very young age to help make ends meet.
“We had great pride in our homes and our neighborhood,” he says. “I worked as a soda jerk at the Oak Leaf on the corner of Oak and Putnam, we made banana splits and sold magazines. I’d walk home at the end of the day with a couple bucks in my pocket and I thought I was king of the world. We’d go to the Palace Theater on a Saturday for 18 cents, bring our lunch and be there the whole day.
“It was a simpler time.” Those simpler times included a square focus on education.
“Education was extremely important, my parents made sure of that,” says DeNigris. “My parents made sure to find a way so I could take music lessons, I played in the Smalley and Nathan Hale School bands, and there was never any question that I would attend college.”
DeNigris was a member of the National Honor Society at New Britain High School and graduated in 1953. His going on to study the law was in effect a fait accompli – he said as much in his junior high school yearbook – and he went on to Clark University in Worcester to earn a degree in government history.
While at Clark, DeNigris was president of both the sophomore and junior classes, and he was sports editor of the Clark Scarlett. In his senior year, he was among five male students inducted into the Gryphon Honor Society, which honors scholarship, leadership and citizenship.
In 1960, DeNigris earned his law degree from the University of Connecticut and passed the bar examination that same year. He has been a practicing attorney in New Britain since 1960, some 56 years, and is currently Senior Partner with the law firm of Januszewski, McQuillan and DeNigris, LLP. At an age when most are well into retirement, Nick DeNigris ambles about his Main Street office and the courtrooms of Hartford County like an aspiring law student.
“The truth is I became a senior partner here because I outlasted everyone else,” he says.
DeNigris is a former special assistant corporation counsel for the City of New Britain, former assistant prosecutor for the 15th Circuit Court of Connecticut, former president of the New Britain Bar Association and a member of the Hartford County and Connecticut Bar Associations. But over the course of his lengthy career, Nick DeNigris has distinguished himself as much more than a fine attorney. He has been a pillar of the community.
DeNigris has served in leadership roles at bedrock institutions such as the United Way (board of directors), New Britain YMCA (trustee and former partner membership chair), UNICO (president, New Britain chapter), Sons of Italy (president of Angelo Tomasso Lodge and Grand Order, Connecticut Grand Lodge), New Britain Boys and Girls Club (president and secretary), as well as other organizations including the New Britain High School Foundation, Elks Lodge #957, Knights of Columbus and the Generale Ameglio Society.
“Nick DeNigris truly exemplifies the proud immigrant heritage of this entire New Britain community – hard working, committed to giving back,” says Greater New Britain Chamber of Commerce President and former Mayor Tim Stewart. “All he knows is hard work, you’d never know the man was in his 80s.
“People like Nick DeNigris have a different sense of community than, I think, our young people of today do,” Stewart continues. “There is a sense of pride and gratitude, they are really grateful for what this country has given them and their families, and they show it every day in the way they give back.”
DeNigris’ partner, John Matulis, says that DeNegris has played a significant role in shaping the way he practices law.
“From Nick I learned that you work hard, you do the very best you can for your clients, and that you don’t select clients solely on the basis of who can pay, but on the basis of who needs your help,” Matulis says. ”Nick’s clients have often been hard-working, salt-of-the-earth kinds of folks, grateful to have someone on their side.”
DeNigris has never shied away from leadership roles that put him squarely in the crosshairs of public debate. In the late 60s and early 70s, he served on the New Britain Board of Education, and was president from 1973-1975. He was president of the board when the city built the then-new New Britain High School, and he weathered his share of budget and contract battles.
Retired educator Dr. Marie Gustin, who was Superintendent of Schools during Nick’s tenure, has distinct memories of DeNigris’ leadership during those times.
“There were always difficulties when it came to the budget,” Gustin says. “Nick would scrutinize every possible line item. It was a difficult time and he had many audiences to please. You have to please the teachers, you have to please the community, you have to please the board. But in the end he always worked it out because he listened, he was a listener. It was not an easy job.
“I think the most important thing about Nick is how dedicated to the community he is,” she concludes. “He is clearly proud of his heritage, he has stayed close to it. He has reached the heights of his profession, but he always has time for everyone. It’s that immigrant heritage pride that drives people like Nick to share their hopes and dreams with others, so that they may have a better life as well.”