Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Salute to Veterans: Manny Puglisi

Multi-sectional breakfront crafted by Manny Puglisi.

Multi-sectional breakfront crafted by Manny Puglisi.

By Maggie Gust

Emanuel “Manny” Puglisi (pooh-glee-see) served in the 76th Field Artillery Battalion of the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946.

Manny was born in Sicily, Italy, and came to this country with his parents in 1937. His older brother and sister had each been born in America, but his parents subsequently returned to Sicily due to his father’s health and the need to be near family. When they came back to New York City, Manny was 13. He began immediately to literally build a life for himself.

At age 14, he started working after school in a woodworking shop, sweeping up and doing other chores. This job gave him money, a dollar a week, but also chronic sneezing. After his father died from his chronic kidney disease, Manny and his mother moved in with his sister and her husband. Their place in Greenwich Village, like so many rentals at that time, had a communal bathroom shared with other tenants on the floor. Eventually, they were able to move to a place with their own bathroom and hot water, though not a bathtub. They did have a wash tub.

(Several years ago, Manny and his wife Mary visited this building where he lived with his family in the late 1930s. It was after the gentrification of Greenwich. One of the tenants, a young man, welcomed them into the building and Manny noted that the original tile on the vestibule’s floor was still there. Everything else had been transformed. There was now an elevator in the four-story building. Manny’s family had paid 19 dollars a month for their apartment, but the friendly tenant informed them his unit was 3,900 dollars a month. They did not journey beyond the vestibule and thanked the gentleman for his hospitality.)

On December 7, 1941, Manny had just visited his father’s gravesite when he heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked by the Japanese. His reaction was the common one of shock, since Japanese diplomats were in Washington, D.C. and had been working on peace talks with the U.S. His wife Mary remembers being in a movie theater with her older brother Dominic at the time. The movie was stopped, the lights came on and there was an announcement that all military personnel were to report back to their posts. It was not until the movie let out that they learned about the attack.

By this time Manny, although still in school, was learning the furniture making trade at the shop where he still worked. After graduation he worked there full time, still sneezing. The shop was closed in 1942 and the foreman and employees including Manny, went to work in a defense plant making lockers for military personnel to stash their belongings. Since metals, including steel, were used for the manufacture of war materiel, ships, bombs, ammunition, etc., the lockers were made from wood. Hence, the need for skilled woodworkers.

In 1943, he was drafted. When given a choice between the Pacific and European theaters, he chose the Pacific because he did not want to fight his former countrymen. After basic training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he was sent to Fort Ord, California. While there, he displayed a talent for instructing his fellow troops and was promoted to corporal and

Mary and Manny Puglisi at their Marco Island home, January 2016. PHOTOS BY MAGGIE GUST

Mary and Manny Puglisi at their Marco Island home, January 2016. PHOTOS BY MAGGIE GUST

then to platoon sergeant as a trainer. This was his position through most of the war, training the infantry at Fort Ord. In early 1945, everyone knew they were gearing up for the Invasion of Japan and Manny, like everyone else in his battalion, expected to be deployed at any time. However, the events of August 1945 with the atomic bombs being dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed his destiny and that of millions of others. The expected losses of a million American lives and two or more million Japanese lives were averted.

For the final few months of his service, Manny was transferred from training to stockade duty. His most vivid memory from this time is of guarding a very large muscular man who was serving time for going AWOL and/or some other minor offense. The man was Joe Louis’ (heavyweight boxing champion of the world 1937-1949) former sparring partner. At 120 pounds, Manny kept a cautious distance, but close enough to be effective at his duty. There was never a problem.

When Manny was discharged in early 1946, he was a U.S. citizen. Shortly after he was drafted and began his service, the Immigration and Naturalization Services offered naturalization to non-citizen service personnel, per congress’ Second War Powers Act of 1942. No one was given citizenship automatically and no one was forced to apply for naturalization, it was simply offered. INS helped the service personnel complete the petition, which required having an honorable record in the service. They were exempt from fees and some other requirements in place at that time. In addition to the petition, they had to take the Oath of Allegiance in court. In some places, there were such a large number of personnel accepting naturalization that judges traveled to the camps and set up temporary courtrooms to preside over the oath. Over 100,000 service personnel were naturalized, including 13,587 in the first U.S. naturalizations conducted overseas.

When Manny came home to New York, he returned to his furniture-making trade and was soon a foreman in the shop. In 1950, he bought 17 acres of land in New Jersey, built chicken coops and buildings to house them, purchased 2,200 chickens and waited for the laying of eggs to begin. Everything was done manually at that time – collecting the eggs, washing, drying, candling (looking for imperfections by passing the eggs over a light source and discarding rejects), sizing, and packaging. At that time, there were 18,000 egg farms in New Jersey and about 30 dealers who came twice a week to the farms to broker deals for the eggs. The egg farms were literally next door to each other.

In April 1954, Mary, a Brooklyn girl, and Manny married and she joined in the work on the egg farm. Three sons, John, Michael and Paul followed over the next six years. They started helping out on the farm as youngsters and were paid for their work.

Times started to get tough when prices dropped after people from the South started getting into egg farming. Many New Jersey egg farmers closed up shop for good. Manny and Mary were feeling a tight squeeze as they tried to make a go of the business and see to the needs of their family of five. Ultimately

Asbury Park Press (New Jersey) article  dated 10/6/2009 about the family egg farm, proudly displayed in the Puglisi home. Their sons Michael, John and Paul are shown. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Asbury Park Press (New Jersey) article dated 10/6/2009 about the family egg farm, proudly displayed in the Puglisi home. Their sons Michael, John and Paul are shown. SUBMITTED PHOTO

they had to go out of business. They sold the chickens, paid off creditors, and leased the farm. Manny’s former boss at the furniture-making shop offered him a partnership to come back. But after visiting the shop and promising to think about the proposal, Mary noticed he didn’t look happy when he returned home. She encouraged him to say no to the furniture shop and that together they would make it somehow. Besides moving the family 70 miles and back into the city after enjoying the quieter (as quiet as it could be with thousands of chickens) country life, his heart was still with the chickens.

So, they worked together, candling the eggs at night, with an intercom in the house so that they could keep an ear on the kids. Manny went door-to-door selling his eggs. The first door he knocked on was the home of the DiStefano family. In the course of conversation, they discovered that they were from the same place in Sicily! The DiStefanos referred Manny to many other people, and within a short time he had a nice route of customers and they were able to keep the business going and feed their kids.

The man who leased the farm was not paying the rent, so they decided to take the farm back. That rent money was needed for the mortgage on their home. They were able to get a large loan from the bank to help them get restarted. Manny remodeled the farm, installed a new machine that cleaned and weighed the eggs. Although there was still a lot of handwork involved, that machine enabled production to skyrocket to 3,600 eggs an hour. The next step in his business growth was going wholesale. He sold his retail to another farmer and concentrated on diners, stores, restaurants and the new Perkins Pancake House that opened in the area.

Manny and Mary instilled a strong work ethic in their sons from an early age, but also encouraged innovation. When his sons wanted to build a greenhouse on the farm, he suggested a brooder house instead, which would be more closely aligned to the business, instead of whatever they were going to grow in the greenhouse. If they took 30,000 chicks and raised them in a brooder house, they could split any money that was saved by raising their own, instead of purchasing, chickens. Each son ended up with several thousands dollars. Lesson learned.

All three sons are presently involved in running the egg farm. Each is responsible for a different aspect of the business. Five of their 10 grandchildren are working at the farm and at least one more has expressed his intention to join up after he finishes college. They recently purchased a second, larger egg farm in Middletown, Delaware, which they are upgrading. Between the two sites, they produced about two million eggs a day and employ 90 people.

That machine I mentioned earlier that allowed Manny and Mary to get back on their feet by processing 3,600 eggs is left in the dust by his sons’ equipment. Their machines process 150,000 eggs an hour and at one farm, they are upgrading to a machine that will process 200,000 eggs an hour. Today, there is no handwork involved. Eggs are completely untouched

PHOTO COURTESY PUGLISI FAMILYManny on his egg farm in the early days.

PHOTO COURTESY PUGLISI FAMILYManny on his egg farm in the early days.

by human hands until the consumer opens the package.

From the 1950s when there were 18,000 egg farms in New Jersey, the number is now down to two. The Puglisi Egg Farm is the only one that is family owned and they are the number two egg producer in the state, right behind a Japanese corporation that is number one. There are about 150 egg farms across the United States, mostly in the Midwest region.

Manny retired in 1986, and although Mary still was involved in the business at that time, they started coming to Marco Island for the winter in a unit at South Seas. In 1991, they moved into their home here, spending a few months of each year with the family in New Jersey. Both are very active in volunteer work both here and up in New Jersey with the Saint Vincent dePaul Society. In addition to donating and collecting food that is used to help local residents, their organization also sends a cargo container of food to Haiti or Jamaica, every few months. Their sons continue the Puglisi tradition of giving back by donating eggs to local food banks in their areas and supporting other charitable causes.

Manny is very devoted to the Italian American Society (IAS) and has served as president in the past. He enjoys playing bocce very much and while president of the Italian American Society was instrumental in installing courts at Mackle Park. Manny and a few other members of the society on the bocce court panel actually built clay courts in the park in approximately 1999. Those three original playing areas have since been replaced by cement courts, and a fourth court added recently. (See the January 8, 2016 issue of Coastal Breeze News.) Bocce is quite popular and an estimated 100 to 150 people a day enjoy the local courts. IAS sponsors a team, and several condo associations have their own leagues. Participation in bocce tournaments is always quite high.

I mentioned earlier that Manny literally built a life for himself in this country. He started working almost as soon as he got here, sweeping up in a woodworking shop. Then he learned that trade which gave him a living until he went into the military during World War II, and then again upon his discharge. When he purchased the egg farm, he was able to build the chicken coops and subsequent additional buildings. He laid the foundations and put up them up entirely on his own. He managed to do all the handwork involved in keeping his business going, while also marrying and starting a family.

After they moved to their home here on Marco, Manny wasn’t finished. Besides building the original bocce courts with his fellow IAS members, they also built a skateboard park at the YMCA (subsequently replaced a few years ago), and have shared their time, skills and financial support with other local organizations. Manny built all the cabinets and furniture in his home, which are exquisite and qualify for display at any fine furniture store (See photo). Everything was built in his two-car garage.

Manny Puglisi, for your service to this country in World War II, we salute you! We thank you for your generosity to this community and for making Marco Island a nicer, friendlier place by your presence here.

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