Just two generations ago in the Italian countryside, in the aftermath of World War II, the D’Ambrosio family’s patriarch – Antonio ‘Tony’ D’Ambrosio – walked the fields of his family’s Avellino farm without any shoes.
His feet became tough and calloused, and he remembers the embarrassment of not having “Sunday pants” for church.
When it was cold outside, he would warm his feet in fresh cow manure as he walked to and fro.
The family grew their own food and eked out a living growing subsidized tobacco for the Italian government.
As a kid, Tony was only allowed to finish the fourth grade, and that was a generous education.
It was the after-effects of a very destructive war on a very poor people, and the D’Ambrosios were not unique to the struggle. Virtually everyone in Avellino and Sicily at the time faced an uphill battle daily.
It’s why so many Italians left their homeland for the United States and other European countries, and why D’Ambrosio left home at the ripe age of 16.
He hoped to one day make life better for his children and future generations.
Perhaps his prayers were answered much quicker than he could have imagined.
Now, Tony’s grandson, Anthony, is about as far removed from the poverty of the post World War II Italian countryside as could be. The Phillips Academy (Andover) senior and former Revere Public Schools student is preparing to enter Yale University next fall – one of the best institutions of higher learning in the world.
It’s a story that exemplifies the American Dream and one that also shows the fruits of Tony D’Ambrosio’s hard work and emphasis on education and personal betterment.
“Everything is such a surprise and it’s hard to believe,” said Tony, sitting alongside his Yale-bound grandson. “I am so proud because it’s my dream. The dream you have is when you have kids, you want to keep the family together. I didn’t get to go to school. You want to see the family improve – the best of the best of the best. I always say to look to the front, you can’t turn to the back. You have to see what’s ahead; step up and don’t step back.”
To Revere via England
Tony D’Ambrosio, now 70, left Italy for Switzerland when the family farm was not producing enough to feed the family. From there, he went on to England and brought his wife there.
In England, they gave birth to their son – prominent Revere attorney Gerry D’Ambrosio. Soon, the family decided to seek their fortunes in the land of opportunity, settling down in East Boston in the early 1970s. In 1974, he moved his family to Revere.
“Things weren’t going so well in Italy and on our farm, so I left and decided to come over here,” he said. “In 1975, I started my landscaping business. I still love to work. I love living in Revere. You have to be proud of your work and I have always been proud to work. I hire guys all the time from El Salvador and Guatemala and other places, and I tell them all the time the best thing to do in this country is to be proud of your work.”
Tony said he and his wife, Antonietta, always emphasized hard work and education to their son, Gerry, and their daughter. In their household, it was expected that both children would work at the flourishing landscaping business and then come home and study for the rest of the night. Neither activity was an option, he said, it was expected.
Long days in the hot sun were fine for Tony, he said, but his dream was to have his kids and their kids do better.
“When I came, I was supposed to go to school,” he said. “They had a program to give me $85 a week to go to school. I made a mistake. I didn’t go. I had two kids and I didn’t think I could.”
Special Bond Between the ‘Tonys’
On Taft Street, Tony D’Ambrosio and his son, Gerry, lived only a couple doors apart when Anthony was born.
Anthony was immediately drawn to his grandfather, looking out the window for him in the mornings as he left for the day with his landscaping crew. In fact, one day when Anthony was only one year old, he ran out the door and begged his grandfather not to leave for the day without him.
The family still laughs about that one.
Anthony started out his schooling at the Paul Revere School and then moved on to Phillips Academy later. Additionally, he was motivated to start a non-profit company that provides sports opportunities to handicapped and mentally challenged children.
Those things, along with stellar grades and great SAT scores earned Anthony an early acceptance to Yale.
However, the younger Anthony – named after his grandfather – credits the older Antonio for his success.
“You have to give credit where credit is due,” he said. “It’s due to my grandfather’s hard work that I have the opportunities I have. To think of where we were as a family 30 years ago versus now is incredible. It’s incredible to think of all the hard work it must have taken to get us here…Believe me, I know these aren’t opportunities everyone has. I’ve seen so many people – like my grandfather – that do not get the chances I’ve been given. That’s why I hope to take full advantage of my time at Yale and use my education to help others gain the same opportunities. As corny as it may sound, we have found the American Dream because there was equal opportunity for all. Maybe not equal outcomes for all, but equal opportunity. I want to spend my life making sure others can have the same equal opportunity.”
And as he listens to his grandson speak, it’s clear that there is a happiness in Tony D’Ambrosio that wipes away the memories of walking shoeless in the cold and not having enough to eat back in Italy.
“You see, that’s why I say it’s important to always go forward, not back,” he said. “Anthony is moving forward.”