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Lee Iacocca, the outspoken, straight-shooting businessman, who as Chief Executive Officer of Chrysler, brought the company back from the brink to booming success, after being knocked out as president of the Ford Motor Company, by Henry, in a devastating 1978 power play, celebrated his 90th birthday yesterday.
Lee (Lido) Iacocca, born October 15, 1924, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, was welcomed by his parents Nicola and Antoinette and little sister Delma. Nicola Iacocca had come to America in 1902, from San Marco (25 miles from Naples) in the Italian regione di Campania.
In America, he lived briefly in Garrett, Pennsylvania, with a relative. There he went to work in a coal mine, but hated it so much he quit after one day.
He soon moved east to Allentown, Pennsylvania where he had another brother. By 1921, he had saved up enough money as an apprentice shoemaker, that he could return to San Marco to bring his widowed mother to America. During his stay in Italy, Nicola, the thirty-one-year-old bachelor, fell in love with Antonietta, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a shoemaker in San Marco, and within a few weeks they were married. Little Lido Anthony arrived three years later, on October 15, 1924. By this time, his father Nicola had opened a hot-dog restaurant called Orpheum Wiener House. It was the perfect business for somebody without much cash. All he needed to get started were a grill, a bun warmer and a few stools.
Lee Iacocca recalled in his autobiography “Iacocca” written with William Novak, that when he went to school back in pre-politically correct days “I was eleven before I learned we were Italian. Until then, I knew we came from a real country but I didn’t know what it was called- or even where it was. I remember actually looking on a map of Europe for places name Dago and Wop. In those days, especially if you lived in a small town, being Italian was something you tried to hide. Almost everybody in Allentown was Pennsylvania Dutch, and as a kid I took a lot of abuse for being different. Sometimes I got into fights with kids who called me names. But I always kept in mind my father’s warning: “If he’s bigger than you are, don’t fight back. Use your head instead of your fists.”
In the sixth grade he wrote “there was an election for captain of the student patrol. The patrolmen all wore white belts with a silver badge, but the lieutenant and the captain got to wear special uniforms with special badges. I loved the idea of wearing that uniform, and I was determined to be the captain. When the vote came in, I had lost to another kid by a margin of twenty-two to twenty. I was bitterly disappointed. The following day I was at a Saturday afternoon matinee at the local theater, where we used to see Tom Mix movies.
In the row ahead of me sat the biggest kid in our class. He turned around and saw me. “You dumb Wop”, he said. “You lost the election.” “I know”, I said. “But why are you calling me a dummy?” He said “there are only twenty-eight kids in the class. But forty-two kids voted. Can’t you dagos even count?” My opponent had stuffed the ballot box! I went to the teacher and told her that some kids voted twice. “Let’s leave well enough alone,” she said to me. She covered it up. She didn’t want any scandals. That incident had a profound effect on me. It was my first dramatic lesson that life wasn’t always going to be fair. In every other respect, however, school was a very happy place for me. I was a diligent student. I was also a favorite of many of my teachers, who were always singling me out to clap the erasers, wash the blackboards or ring the school bells.”
Auto buffs may recall that Lee Iacocca changed the American auto industry in the mid-60’s by creating the Ford Mustang, a car that sold an unbelievable 418,812 in its first year along. Others may recall Lee Iacocca’s blunt and authoritative voice saying in commercials, “If you can afford a better car- buy it” or the miraculous rebirth of Chrysler from near bankruptcy to repayment of its controversial $1.32 billion loan early, but few of us know that when Lee Iacocca’s wife, Mary died of diabetes in 1983, Lee and his daughters Kathi and Lia began a journey to support Diabetes research nationwide via the Iacocca Foundation. A few years later he and his family founded Villa Nicola, fine Extra Virgin Olive Oil from his villa in Tuscany and Chianti Red Wine Vinegar, with all profits benefiting Diabetes Research.
Lee Iacocca first purchased his hilltop estate in Tuscany in 1984 to get away from the pressures of corporate life. He named the villa after his late father, Nicola, and soon discovered olive trees and grapevines on the property. Always with an eye toward business, Iacocca decided to turn a profit on the estate and bring the food his family enjoyed in Italy back to America. By 1988, Iacocca or his daughters were attending International Fancy Food and Confection Shows in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and other major shows in the U.S. and Canada. Iacocca introduced a line of products bearing the Villa Nicola name, including extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and several wines. He introduced several pastas and sauces later, with Villa Nicola profits donated to Diabetes Research.
At an early International Fancy Food Show in San Francisco I picked up some Villa Nicola literature when read “If you were to catch me coming back from a trip to Italy a few years ago, you’d most likely find several bottles of Extra Virgin olive oil stuffed away in my suitcase. Well, things eventually started getting out of hand. Something had to be done and I mean quick. So I formed a family business, named it after my father and went about finding ways to deliver the oil to my friends. Just in case you’re not familiar with Villa Nicola Extra Virgin olive oil, let me take a minute to fill you in. It’s made the traditional Italian way, from the first cold pressing of the olives. It’s naturally green in color, remarkably smooth and delicious. And it’s all natural. So if you happen to be a close friend of mine, I’m sorry I had to start charging you. But at least now you don’t have to wait for me to return from a trip to Italy. All you have to do is contact one of our specialty food distributors nationwide.”