Founder’s Day: Celebrating George Marotta (Part 1)

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As a part of our firm culture, we celebrate a few unique holidays here at Marotta Wealth Management. One of those holidays is October 6, which we call Founder’s Day. Even though our specific firm was technically founded over the summer of 2000, we celebrate Founder’s Day on the birthday of my grandfather George Marotta, also known as “Papa” to me and “Grand-Papa” to my daughter.

George Marotta brought financial planning to the Marotta family. On his birthday, we celebrate the life, joy, and wealth of that decision. We usually celebrate by gathering as a team all around one big table. Then, we eat lunch and reminisce about our firm history. Like a snowball, we start with memories the most veteran employees have. As we move towards the present, even the newest among us are able to join in with their memories, celebrating what has come to pass.

With many of our team now working remotely and with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping us socially distant, I decided to write this series celebrating my grandfather and his life. This is the first part.

This is modern day 241 and 241 1/2 Vley Road. The garage still stands as a second home on the property.

Born at Home in New York

My grandfather, George Marotta, grew up in the small village of Scotia, New York. It is situated on the north bank of the Mohawk River with a population of about 5,000.

Giuseppe, my great-grandfather, owned 241 Vley Road. It had a beautiful two-story dwelling which he rented out for $25 per month in order to augment his family’s income.

For his own family, he converted the property’s two-car garage into a home with the addition of another room in the back and stairs up into a multi-windowed kitchen. He had access to discarded lumber through his job on the railroad. Old lumber from a railroad switching tower became the new floors and walls of their home.

One stall of the garage became the living room. The other car stall was made into two bedrooms: one for the parents and one for the oldest of five sons, James. “The rest of us,” my grandfather remembers, “slept upstairs in two double beds. The roof of the garage had no insulation and upstate NY was very cold in the winter time so Carmine and I huddled together under a pile of blankets. Our garage-house got the mailing address of 241 1/2.”

George Marotta was born at home in that garage in 1926.

All together, Rosa gave birth to seven males, but only five survived. All were named after Italian family members except George. George was named after the founding father of the United States.

”Life was good,” my grandfather recalls. “I was part of a large and loving family. I knew exactly what was required of me by just looking up at what my three older brothers had done. We all had our duties to pitch in and help the family work get done.”

The five boys attended elementary school in the two-story red brick building of Lincoln Elementary School. My grandfather remembers:

I learned from my second oldest brother (Diamond) in 2006 that he thought he “flunked” kindergarten and the first grade. When I asked him why, he told me that he was put down in this first class, and they began speaking a strange language that he had not heard before. I was surprised at that because although my parents spoke mostly Italian at home, by the time I came along my three older brothers spoke English.

While the oldest boys went to school only knowing how to speak Italian, by the time my grandfather was born, the brothers spoke a fair amount of English at home. Even with that true, the only book they had in the house was the Bible, and it was in Italian. Little Giorgio’s first exposure to written English was the back of cereal boxes.

Family Career & Work

Giuseppe Marotta had a job as a foreman for the New York Central Railroad. He ended up working there for 60 years. He maintained the railroad tracks, keeping them in good condition. His two oldest sons (Jim and Dime) became civil engineers from Union College so they could open a business working on the railroad as well. Around the dinner table, there was a lot of talk about the railroad. George guessed that his father asked his supervisor what education he had and was told “civil engineering.”

Growing up in the Depression years of the 1930s, my grandfather never realized that his family was poor because everyone else was poor as well. His family was lucky though because his father always had employment on the railroad. During the hardest times, his work week was reduced from 6 days to 5 and sometimes even 4 days per week, but he still had work. “It seemed to me,” George remembers, “in those days that everyone had just an adequate standard of living.”

In addition to the hard labor at the railroad, the family also maintained a large garden. They grew lots of vegetables, corn, watermelons, grapes, and had fruit trees. They also raised chickens and foraged in the woods.

When my grandfather was four, he helped his mother take scraps of food out to feed the chickens. Later when he was five, he was given a basket and entrusted to gather eggs from the chicken coop. “When I brought them in,” my grandfather explains, “she told me to return a glass egg to the straw. She said (in Italian) that the chickens were stupid and you had to show them what to do and where to do it.”

At age six, my grandfather received more difficult tasks. From his father Giuseppe, Little Giorgio was given a snow shovel and instructed to clear a path from the front door to the sidewalk. Around the same age, his mother Rosa enlisted George to help drain a Sunday chicken and remove the feathers. The family would also make sausage, and George would turn the grinding crank on the meat.

At age seven, Giuseppe taught George how to use a hoe to weed the garden and remove the grass from between the rows of corn. This was his job every Saturday. He tried to finish it quickly though so that he could go to the Ritz downtown that afternoon to see a movie.

When he was eight, Rosa gave George a knife and told him to bring in some asparagus. “When I told her I didn’t know where it was in the garden,” George explains, “she told me that it grew wild in the field and to just go along the fence by the railroad tracks and cut them down if they were four inches high. My mother frequently asked me to pick vegetables from the garden, and I was very happy when she asked me to bring in some rhubarb because then I knew she would make a pie.”

Around the same time, George was asked to wash dishes with his brother Carmine. Carmine was a year and a half older, so he smartly picked to do the easier job of drying the dishes while George washed. “We often had fights over this issue,” George recalls years later. “You can imagine the amount of pots and pans and dishes a family of seven would dirty in one meal.”

At twelve, George was old enough to join his father and older brother in the harder garden work. They had a lot of land in the back of their house. By the time George remembers, they already had a large garden plot. Each Spring, the boys turned the dirt over for the new year’s planting. At the same time, they also usually decided to make their garden one or two rows bigger. Finally, one year Giuseppe decided the garden was too much for just their family to do. Instead, they hired a man, two horses, and a plow to prepare the garden for planting.

Inside, they fueled their furnace with coal in the winter. “I distinctly remember the man charging us $8 a ton for the beautiful blue anthracite coal that he slid down the metal shoot through our basement window,” George explains. “For this purpose, my father had to dig out a cellar under the garage for the furnace and to keep food cool.”

In the kitchen, they had a large, black iron stove for cooking. To fuel that, Giuseppe brought home old ties from the railroad. They would rent a large saw and cut the ties so they would fit in the stove. Then, the sons would take axes and split the wood into sections. At thirteen, George joined his brothers in this task. “We filled a whole barn full of this wood,” my grandfather remembers. “We had enough to last for 20 years because my Dad wanted to be sure we would never run out. In fact, I can remember taking wood to the two peg-legged men who served the two railroad crossings.”

My grandfather remembers the sight of a hot, golden stove fondly. Rosa baked all of their breads and cakes from scratch. “When my fists were big enough,” George explains, “she asked me to knead the dough after she had added all the ingredients and yeast. There is nothing like the smell, and later taste, of freshly baked home-made Italian bread. In the wintertime, we often had ‘pane fritto’ for breakfast. Ma flattened some dough into small circles and fried them in butter and olive oil and yummy, you have puffed up fried bread that needed nothing added to it because it was delicious!”

In addition to cooking the immediate family’s meals, Rosa also canned the excess garden vegetables for the winter and made sure to share with their local relations. In the same area was Francisco “Frank” Marotta (Giuseppe’s brother), his wife Alessandra Fasulo (Rosa’s sister) and their five children; Marielle Fasulo (Rosa’s sister), her husband, and their seven children; and Pasquale Marotta (Giuseppe’s brother), his wife, and their child.

Frank got all the brothers a job on the railroad, Giuseppe had the ever-growing garden and its yield, and Pasquale made the wine.

Giuseppe grew Concord grapes in their garden, but the family also imported California white grapes. With both of those, Pasquale (George’s uncle) made wine. He owned a press. During one day they would make enough wine to last the entire year. He stored it and then doled out a weekly supply of one glass gallon of wine to each family. My grandfather remembers, “There was wine on our table every dinner meal and we boys, if we wanted some, could drink wine, although we didn’t.”

My grandfather’s family didn’t have to buy anything except spaghetti, olive oil, milk, and spices — or so the story goes. They ordered these staples in bulk from a special store in Schenectady, New York which imported Italian foods. As a hungry family of seven though, they bought spaghetti by the crate. My grandfather remembers that the pasta was delivered to the home in 100 pound crates.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

In addition to ordering groceries for themselves, their family bundled their grocery order with the local crossing guard watchman to save on shipping. George, who was around nine then, would deliver them.

The watchman had been injured working on the railroad and was now a one-legged man. While he couldn’t do his original job any more, the railroad now employed him to be the railroad crossing guard. There were no automatically operated gates in those days to stop traffic when the train went over a highway, so this man would hold up a sign that said “STOP” when the trains were coming. He lived in a little shed near the crossing.

Throughout the year, George would deliver the man’s groceries in exchange for 25 cents. In the winter, George would also load his sled with chopped wood and deliver that to the man as well as a second grade-crossing man. “I enjoyed talking with him near the hot potbellied stove during the winters,” George recalls. “He took time to talk with young boys and explained to me what he was doing. He was a very frugal man who did not waste a thing. He had the biggest ball of tin foil I have ever seen. He very carefully peeled foil from the paper used to wrap cigarette packages in those days. He also had a huge ball of string that he saved.”

When he was ten, George also delivered excess vegetables from their garden. He would fill up his wagon and peddle the produces to the neighbors. “I sold out quickly and took a bunch of nickels, dimes, and quarters back to my mother,” George explains.

At eleven, George collected the $25 monthly rent from the house in front of them. The occupant, Mr. Roberts, was an electrical engineer who worked for General Electric (GE), which was the huge manufacturing company in Schenectady. “We were living in the ‘high-tech’ area of the US in those days,” my grandfather explains. “My town, Scotia, was the bedroom area for people who worked at General Electric.”

During the summers, he would also sometimes hear about “picking jobs.” With those, he would pick strawberries, apples, or such. It was back-breaking work, but it paid well.

My grandfather also shined shoes for a repair shop on the Main Street of Scotia. The repairman was “a very serious, strict boss.” My grandfather remembers, “I had to do everything on a specific schedule and his way. I forgot the exact meager pay but it did include tips from shoeshines. A shine cost about 10 cents and I will never forget one merchant who came in every Saturday and gave me a whole quarter. Can you imagine that tip (15 cents) was more than the cost of the shine! He must have been a millionaire, I thought.” My grandfather remembers that the repairman was Italian and has always assumed that he got the job somehow through a family member.

While the money that George made was expected to be returned back to his parents, he does remember that he and his older brother would try to hide empty bottles of “Par-T-Pak” soda. They would return the bottles to the store for the five cent deposit. Two bottles would pay for a child’s ticket to the movies. “We very seldom had soda pop, but when we did, I was glad,” George mentions.

When he was twelve, he would also work at the bowling alley. The bowling alley was next door to the movie theater. George would often go to the alley on Saturdays.

“I would go to the bowling alley and tell them I wanted to set up pins,” he explains. “You would step on a lever at the end of the alley, and up would pop 10 metal spikes from the floor. And you would try to pick up a couple of pins at a time and place them over the spikes. When you were done, you would hop up on the side of the alley and hope you wouldn’t be hit by a flying pin when the ball came down the alley.”

The alley paid 5 cents per game for resetting the pins. If he earned his nickels early on Saturday, he would go next door to get entrance to the movies. Movies cost ten cents. You got a main feature, a B picture, a cartoon, a newsreel, a Flash Gordon space ship, and sometimes a “Depression” glass plate. “You could even stay and see the movies all over again, but if you fell asleep,” George explains “the usher would wake you up and tell you to go home. I looked older than 12, so I had to carry my birth certificate to get the ten cent child rate.”

A Fulfilling Home Life

As a family of seven — mom, dad, and five boys — they made up their own fun and activities that they would play among themselves. The boys were given the freedom to roam wherever they could walk, and there were always things to do. My grandfather has especially fond memories of playing baseball, pitch and catch, and horseshoe pitching.

His older brothers played on the Campbell Dairy baseball team, so named because the dairy footed the bill for the uniforms. As the second youngest, my grandfather was often “put to work” during his brother’s baseball games. He recalls that, “At age 6, I arranged the baseball bats in the correct order for the upcoming players. At about age 8, I would pass a hat among the spectators to collect coins that was used to buy uniforms and equipment. At about age 11, I was taught to keep the very complex ‘official’ record of the game that would be sent to the local newspaper, the Schenectady Gazette, for publication in Monday’s edition.”

After the baseball game on Saturday evenings, the young people would meet on the Malicone’s front porch and relive the baseball game from that afternoon. Those without dates would often wind up going over to the Mohawk River and into town to get a fun treat. “We younger children,” my grandfather explains, “would tremble as they made their final plans in fear that they would not take us younger kids along. But our older brothers would make sure that we were squeezed in some place in the car even if it meant the rumble seat.” On warm summer evenings, the “big thing” was driving five miles to the big city (Schenectady) to buy six-cent double-dip ice cream cones at Green’s or to Ma Dawson’s bakery to wolf down day-old pies. The ice cream cones were huge and cost 6 cents. The day-old pies were 25 or 30 cents.

The boys were required to bathe once a week on Saturday night “whether they needed it or not!” Because they didn’t have a hot water heater at first, their mother brought pans of hot water from the stove to heat the bath water. My grandfather remembers, “I was fourth in line to bathe, so you can imagine the condition of the water during my turn. We were all very happy when we got an indoor hot water heater when I was about 8 years old.”

For several years after my grandfather was born, his family had a “two-seater outhouse” in the back, but they also had the taste of modern inventions.

They had a 4-party telephone line in the house (the latest technology). Although they received very few calls, when they did, they immediately asked if everyone was okay because most calls were to report some bad event. My grandfather also remembers enjoying listening to the calls of other families on the line, as he knows his neighbors enjoyed doing with his own family’s calls.

They also had an automobile, a 1924 Jewett, during the 1930s. They basically only used the car to drive to church. They attended an Italian Pentecostal Church located in Schenectady, about 8 miles from their home. They picked this church so that his parents, who only spoke Italian, could understand the service. After church, they would visit his Uncle Pasquale and Aunt Concette. At the conclusion of the visit, they’d pick up their wine quota for the next week.

Then, the families would often have lunch together, alternating which family hosted. On some summer weeks, they didn’t go visiting, and instead went on “dandelion and coal outings.” On these outings, they would talk and walk along the railroad tracks. The men carried burlap sacks for coal and the women would carry bushel baskets for dandelions. The dandelions, they would later wash and use in salads, both cooked and uncooked. The coal was that which had fallen off train gondola cars. They would collect the pieces to add to their or their relation’s coal bin. My grandfather remembers that curves in the track were the best places to look for coal.

They had a Singer sewing machine that his mother used often. For entertainment, they had a radio and Victrola, a gramophone by the Victor Company.

My grandfather remembers, “My brothers always tinkered with old cars.” They would find two or three old junk cars and tear them apart to rebuild one car that runs. The cars would have no body on them, just a frame, four wheels, and a driver’s seat. They would send the younger boys with a gallon can to pick up ten cents worth of gas (about a half gallon). They would also ask for “reclaimed oil,” a euphemism for old oil drained out during an oil change. They’d run the oil through a cheese cloth to remove dirt, sludge, and metal filings. Then they would run these old cars on a track they made in the open field behind their house. Whenever they ran out of gas, they would just leave the jalopy right there until next time.

A Decision to Be Something

Giuseppe frequently talked with his boys about taking care not to waste money on frivolous things. After an unnecessary purchase, Giuseppe could be heard commenting, “You are going to put me in the poorhouse!”

At the same time, he was very generous. My grandfather remembers, “one of the few things that I ever heard my parents argue about was my mother’s complaints that my father had loaned money to workers in his gang that she surely knew would not be repaid.”

In 1940, when my grandfather was 13, his father Giuseppe got promoted to the maintenance-of-way foreman at the New York Central Railroad station in Albany, the capital city of New York State. He remembers that they “moved from this idyllic small village to the big city of Albany, NY. There we lived in a very poor part that I call ‘the tenderloin’ district. We had the second floor of a tenement house. In the basement was an Italian grocery store and the families on the 1st and 3rd floor were also Italians. The neighborhood could be described as ‘rainbow’ color. It was a great education for me.”

By the time he was in high school, George was a member of the track team, a member of the varsity football team, the president of the tenpin bowling team, and school president for his senior year. At school, his favorite subjects were the commercial ones such as typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, and business law.

In 1943, when George was 16, his father got him working papers so he could be a “gandy dancer” during his summer vacations. A gandy dancer, more formally referred to as “section hands,” is the railroad worker who laid and maintained railroad tracks in the years before the work was done by machines. My grandfather remembers, “That taught me a lot. If one does not get an education, you will be spiking railroad ties (or digging ditches) for the rest of your life with a gang of men who speak every language except English.” He earned 59 cents per hour for the really hard, backbreaking work alongside mostly illiterate older men from whatever was the most recent immigrant group to arrive in New York.

My grandfather remembers:

One very hot summer day, while I was still sweating from the morning’s work, the sleek, chromium-lined Twentieth Century Limited pulled into Albany train station on its way from Chicago to New York City. It stopped right in front of me while I was sitting on a wooden crate eating my baloney sandwich. I looked up at passengers in the air-conditioned dining car being served on white tablecloths by uniformed waiters. I thought how unfair life was. I resolved then and there that I was not going to be doing this kind of work very long. I guess that’s what my dad had in mind – encouraging us to get a better education than he had in order to have a better life. It worked for me as I went on to earn college degrees and pursue successful careers in government, business, and academe.

I’m grateful for Giuseppe’s emphasis on the importance of education and George’s determination to become something. I credit much of my own success in life to these family lessons faithfully passed down.

My grandfather turns 95 this year. He is one of my role models and favorite people. What a joy to celebrate him this year!

Follow Megan Russell:

Chief Operating Officer, CFP®, APMA®

Megan Russell has worked with Marotta Wealth Management most of her life. She loves to find ways to make the complexities of financial planning accessible to everyone. She is the author of over 800 financial articles and is known for her expertise on tax planning.