All Commentary
Wednesday, April 1, 1992

Tony Trivisano’s American Dream

Mr. Crawford, honorary chairman of TRW Inc., is a former member of the Board of Trustees of FEE. This article is reprinted from the fall 1991 issue of Cleveland Enterprise. Copyright © 1991, Cleveland Enterprise.

Tony Trivisano came from a rocky farm in Italy somewhere south of Rome. How or when he got to America, I do not know. I first met Tony when I returned from the office one day and found him standing in the driveway behind the garage. He was a shabby-looking person, about five feet seven or eight, thin. He looked hungry.

“I mow your lawn,” he said as I approached him. I didn’t comprehend his broken English. I asked him his name. “Tony Trivisano.” I asked him what he wanted. “I mow your lawn.”

Then I caught on. He wanted a job. I told Tony that the Depression was on. It was then about 1930 or ‘31. These were difficult days. I told him I had to mow my own lawn; I couldn’t afford a gardener. “I mow your lawn,” he said.

I said, “Tony, I’m sorry, but I don't think we can work anything out.”

“I mow your lawn,” he said again, then turned and walked away.

That evening I felt very unhappy and mean. A person in need had appeared to me. Where was my compassion? I was sorry that I had turned him away. The next day, when I returned late from work, I was amazed to find that our lawn had been mowed, the garden had been weeded, and the walks had been raked. Things looked very neat. I asked my wife what happened.

“A strange man came today, got the lawn mower out of the garage, and proceeded to work on the yard,” she said. “I thought you had made some arrangements for a gardener.”

I told her of my experience the night before. We thought it strange. The next two days were busy. We were trying to rebuild our business and bring some of our workers back to the plants. I got home late. But on a Friday, returning a little early, I saw Tony turning away. I called him. I complimented him on the work he had done. “I mow your lawn,” he said.

Being an old softie, I worked out some kind of small weekly pay, which I thought would be enough to help him get along. He turned and walked down the driveway without a word. For the next few weeks we were busy, but each day Tony appeared, cleaned up the yard, and took care of all the little chores. My wife said he was very helpful whenever there were any heavy objects to lift or special things to fix about the place. She was delighted to have him.

Summer passed into fall, and cold winds were arriving. One day as I returned, Tony was there in his place behind the garage. I asked him what I could do for him.

“Mr. Craw, snow pretty soon,” he said. “When winter come, you give me job shoveling snow at the factory.”

Well, what do you do with a fellow like that? What do you do with such persistence and hope? Of course, I relented, and Tony got his job at the factory.

The months passed. I asked the company’s labor department for a report on Tony. They reported that he was a very good worker. Some time went by. Again, one day I found Tony at the meeting place behind the garage when I returned from the office.

“What can I do for you, Tony?”

“I want to be ‘prentice,” Tony said.

I didn’t catch on at first, and then I realized he was asking if he could become an apprentice. We have a pretty good apprentice school. We trained laborers in various skills that were needed. I doubted whether Tony had the capacity to read blueprints and micrometers and do precision work. However, how can you turn down such persistence? Of course, Tony got his apprenticeship.

He gave up some of his pay, took less money, and became an apprentice. Months and months later, I got a report from the shop that he had graduated from the apprentice school, a skilled grinder. He had learned to read the millionths of an inch on the micrometer. He had learned to handle his machine. He had learned to true the grinding wheel with an instrument set with a diamond. He was on his way. My wife and I were delighted. We felt that this would be the end of the story.

Again, the months passed, perhaps a year or two years, and once again, I found Tony in his usual waiting place after I returned from work. We had a nice visit. We talked about the grinding and his work, and then I asked him what he wanted. “Mr. Craw,” he said, “I like a buy a house.”

“Why, Tony, how can you possibly buy a house? You haven’t got your debts paid.”

“I like a buy a house. Lots of opportune.” That puzzled me. Finally, I realized that he had found many opportunities to buy a house. I didn’t quite picture it. when I looked into it, I learned that on the edge of town, where the area was deteriorating, he had found a house that was a complete wreck, marked to be torn down. This was the house he wanted to buy. There was a “For Sale” sign on the property that gave the name of the bank to which it had defaulted.

Well, I called on a banker friend, and I said, “Do you ever loan money on character?”

“No,” he said. “We can’t afford to. No sale.” “Now, wait a minute, Mr. Banker,” I said. “Here is a hard-working man, a man of character. I can vouch for that. He’s got a good job. Now, you’re not getting a damn thing from your lot. It will stay there for years. Here is a man who at least will pay you interest. Why don’t you try it?”

Reluctantly, he agreed to write up a mortgage and give Tony the house with no down payment. Tony was thrilled. From then on, it was interesting to see that any odds and ends around our place—a broken screen, a bit of hardware, boards from packing, anything left over from the maintenance of our home—Tony would gather and ask my wife if he might take home. That went on, I suppose, for something close to two years or more.

Then one day Tony appeared again. We had a little talk together, and I said, “What is it this time, Tony?”

He said, “Mr. Craw, I like a pay 4 percent like the big boys. They make me pay 6 percent.”

Now, at the time, in the post-Depression period, interest rates were settled at about 4 percent standard, but because Tony’s loan was one without collateral, they were soaking him for 6 percent. I dropped in on my banker friend and said, “why don’t you give this fellow half a break? Why are you sticking him with 6 percent?”

“Well, his loan was no good.”

“How do you know? Send an appraiser out and check up again.” The appraiser went out and brought back a report that Tony’s property was worth $4,000. Now Tony had a good loan, a 50 percent loan, and he got his 4 percent interest.

The Next Step Up

Again, time passed. War was threatening. Late one afternoon as I returned, I found Tony in the familiar meeting spot. “What can I do for you?” I said. Tony seemed to stand a little straighter. He was heavier. He had a look of confidence.

“Mr. Craw, I sell my house!”

“Tony, you sold your house? what did you get for it?”

“I got $8,000,” he said with pride.

I was amazed. “But, Tony, how are you going to live without a home?”

“Mr. Craw, I buy a farm.”

Well, this was all coming pretty fast for me, but we sat down, and we talked at length. I learned that Tony had sent for his wife and son and daughter back in Italy. They had arrived. The children were in school. His wife was making their home homey. He had hunted around the edge of town and found a small, abandoned farm with a small but suitable home and a shed, and he had moved onto his farm. He told me that to own a farm was his dream, that he loved the tomatoes and the peppers and all the things that are so important in the Italian diet. I was astonished.

The next time that I saw Tony was at the company picnic. He was there with his wife and children and was having a wonderful time. I could see that he had many warm friends among the factory workers. What surprised me was that Tony was wearing my favorite salt-and-pepper, well-worn weekend sports suit. It fitted him perfectly. “Tony, where did you get that suit?”

He said, “Your wife gave it to me five years ago.” I had never missed it.

Some time later, Tony arrived on a Sunday afternoon, neatly dressed. He had another Italian man with him. He told me that he had sent to the town of his birth and persuaded his childhood friend to come to America. Tony was sponsoring him. With a hint of a twinkle in his eye, he told me about how, when they approached the little farm that he now operated, his friend stood there in amazement and said, “Tony, you are a millionaire!” Tony was filled with great pride.

The years went by. War was on. We were very busy with our war-production work. I had no time to think of Tony, although my wife had become very fond of him. Then one day, a message came from the company’s labor department. Tony had not reported for work. An investigation showed he had passed away. We all felt sorry, but we were proud of his accomplishments.

I asked our people to check on his family and see that everything was properly handled. The report came back. They found the farm was green with vegetables; the little house was well, liveable, and homey. There was a tractor in the yard and a good automobile. Tony didn’t owe one red cent. The son and daughter had been educated and were at work, and things were left in perfect shape.

After Tony passed away, I exceedingly regretted that I had not spent more time with him, that I had not at least driven out to visit his little farm and seen his wife and his family and his boyhood friend settled and enjoying the American way of life. I thought more and more about Tony’s career. He grew in stature in my mind. Finally, he appeared tall and proud, standing with the greatest industrialists who had ever lived in America.

They had all reached their success by the same route and by the same values and principles. Each one had to show vision, perseverance, determination, self-control, optimism, hope, self-respect, and above all, integrity. Tony’s affairs were tiny; the great industrialists’ affairs were giant. But after all, the figures were exactly the same. The only difference was where you put the decimal point.

Tony did not begin on the bottom rung of the ladder. Tony began in the basement. All he had were 24 precious hours a day. He knew that he must waste none of them, unlike so many of us who waste time today. He knew instinctively that time was the secret of success. His instinct also told him that time was the secret of wealth, that if he was ever to enjoy material comforts, it would be through the wise use of time.

What is wealth? Wealth is anything a human being can use: money in the bank, a house, a pair of shoes. How is wealth produced? A very simple process. If you take one hour of time and you make something useful, you have added to wealth. Now, there are two ways to do this. One is by hand, a slow and tedious process. The other way is by accumulating vast amounts of capital, and by that method, great amounts of wealth can be produced quickly.

Tony knew that his precious 24 hours a day were the secret of success, just as the violinist knows he must endure countless hours of practice, the athlete, many muscle-numbing hours of training, the doctor, years of constant study. Tony knew that time would bring him success, albeit slowly.

Tony came to America seeking the American Dream. He did not find the American Dream; he created the American Dream for himself. Every American with 24 hours of precious time can create his or her own American Dream, if he or she will only learn what Tony instinctively knew: Time is the secret of success. Time is the secret of wealth.