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.”