PAUL N. LUVERA SR. 1898 – 1990 The American Dream Realized

PAUL N. LUVERA SR. 1898 – 1990 The American Dream Realized

Today is the anniversary of the death of an extraordinary man, my father, Paul Nicholas Luvera Sr. Born on March 25, 1898, he died in Anacortes, Washington on November 4, 1990 at the age of 92. Dad moved to Anacortes in 1918 and spent his life in the town. He was born in Reggio Calabria, Italy, the son of Niccola and Fillippa Luvera. In 1910 he emigrated to Coleman, Alberta where he and his father worked in coal mines until the family moved to Anacortes in 1918. In 1922 he and his father opened Luvera's Fruit Store at 7th & Commerical in Anacortes – Dad_nonno_2a neighbood store that featured home delivery and allowed purchases on credit. My grandfather arranged the fruit displays and worked at the store into his 80's.

(Photo: Nicola, Paul Jr. & Paul Sr 1950)

In 1902 my grandfather Nicola was working in a slaughter house in Italy for $.20 per day. That year he left Italy and sailed for the "new world." He made his way to Montreal Canada where his cousins were working and who had paid for his ship ticket. He joined his relatives in working for the Canadian Pacific Railroad installing a railroad track from Winnipeg to Manitoba. He was a section hand installing track. The men lived in tents along the tracks they were installing. They were paid $1.00 per day. He spoke and read only in Italian. He never learned much English.

After working and saving his money he returned to Italy in 1905. He hid the money he took home with him in a money belt around his waist. My father was six years old and remembered when his father came home. He said that my grandfather gathered grandmother and the children in the kitchen. He pulled all the shades for secrecy and removed his money belt spilling gold coins on the kitchen table to show how much he had saved. Dad was amazed at the sight.

After a short visit at home, my grandfather took the oldest boy Salvatore, age sixteen, and returned to Canada so the two of them could earn enough money to bring the rest of the family over from the   old country. It took several years, but by 1911 he and Salvatore had earned enough to send tickets for the whole family. My grandmother took dad and his sisters to France where they took a German ship to St. John Brunswick. They could only afford passage in steerage & it took seventeen days to get there. Dad was twelve years old and remembered sneaking up to the first class deck to see what it looked like and being caught. He was told to get back to steerage at the bottom of the ship, but he saw enough to know he wanted to someday sail first class one day himself. Years later, in his retirement, Mother and he sailed first class from New York to England.

Before grandmother and the children arrived, my grandfather and Salvatore had found better paying jobs in the coal mines of Colman, Alberta. Grandmother, Dad and the sisters had to travel across Canada on Dad & nonno head their own. None of them spoke any English and it took three days to arrive at the small coal mining town of about one thousand people. When they arrived it was five degrees below zero in February after leaving their home in sunny Southern Italy. It was a culture shock for them dad remembered years later.

Grandfather and Salvatore were working in the mines for the International Coal and Coke Company. Dad was too young to work in the mines so he had to attend school one year in the sixth grade before he could go to work. That was the extent of his formal education. He learned a little English in school and was only thirteen when he went to work in the coal mines to help support the family. I still have the small cheap metal tag with a number on it, that the mine owners gave the workers to wear around their neck in case they were killed or injured in the mine which happened frequently. Dad worked with my grandfather and his brother doing hard manual labor for nine years.

In 1918 the family decided to move because my grandfather had developed the coal minor’s lung problems common to the men who worked in the coal mines. They decided they should to move to a better climate. By this time, Salvatore had moved on to Washington state to the town of Anacortes. Salvatore wrote the family and suggested they move to live in that small fishing and lumber town. He said there was work in the saw mills for them. Dad temporarily stayed behind, but the rest of the family took the train to the end of the line in Burlington and then switched to a steam engine with three small passenger cars to Anacortes. Dad was left to sell their belongings because he had learned some English and was given the job to close out their lives in Canada. He followed them several months later.

Dad was always amused when pointing out that when Salvatore wrote them he said he was a colonel "in the army" or at least that's what they understood from his letter. My grandfather was very proud that his son was a military officer, but when they arrived the discovered that Salvatore had joined the Salvation Army and was referring to it and not the military. Grandfather was disappointed.

At that time Anacortes was a small town with four sawmills, six shingle mills, six salmon canneries and two codfish plants. My grandfather got a job as a section hand for the Great Northern Railroad company working on the railroad tracks with other laborers. Dad found work with the Morrison Mill company in the boiler room feeding the furnace. It was a hot and miserable job. After fifteen days he was able to find a new job at Anderson Shingle mill stacking shingles for the dry kiln. Then, after working there some time, he was able to find a "white collar" job working for a local Italian grocer, as a delivery man working six days a week 7 am to 6 PM. He was very proud of the fact he had advanced from a blue collar worker to one who wore a white shirt and tie. My grandfather and grandmother never learned to speak English, but dad was proud of the fact he had learned to speak English and even more proud of later becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States.

During the depression of 1921 his employer told him he had to cut dad’s pay. Dad had always had a goal of opening his own grocery store and decided to quit rather then take a cut in pay. He wanted to open up a store of his own. He was living with his parents and the family kept their savings together they hid in a jar at their home. They had accumulated some money, $1600, but dad figured they would need at least another $2000 to open their own store. He applied for a loan at the local bank, but was turned down. He approached several wholesale grocery suppliers to obtain a loan from them but was turned down again. He finally convinced Homer Fry of Northern Grocery to loan him the money on the promise he would sell exclusively their Reliance brand of products. The loan was made and dad gratefully carried Reliance products for many years long beyond the time his verbal agreement with Mr. Fry obligated him.

He leased a store front at 7thand Commercial in Anacortes. The store opened as "Luvera’s Fruit Store." Everyone in the family was involved. Dad’s sister was a clerk in the store. His father quit his job in the saw mill to run the fruit and create a daily vegetable display. Dad's mother also helped out. This small grocery store featured home delivery complete with putting the groceries on the shelves at the customer’s home if they requested. Credit was given and people could phone in their orders for delivery to their home. There was a fresh meat market with a butcher shop in the back of the store. Store products stacked high to the ceiling. A long wooden handle with grasping tongs was needed to reach those items. Huge wheels of cheese were on display from which slices would be cut to the customer's specifications. Fresh coffee was ground from beans in a larger coffee grinder. The front of the store along the sidewalk had a large colorful vegetable display created by my grandfather who worked at the store well into his eighties. To promote business, drawings were held for grocery prizes and dozens of people would show up for the drawings. Times were tough. The black and white photos of that time show huge crowds of people gathered outside the store waiting for the winning ticket to be drawn and prizes to be given. The struggling store survived.

Dad met my mother, Mary Babarovich, in Anacortes. Mother was the daughter of Peter and Marija and was the youngest of eight children. The family had immigrated from what was Austria Hungry on a small island near Split. They were married in 1926. She began to work at the store with dad after their marriage. The mainstay of the store economy was the commercial fishing fleet. Literally hundreds of commercial purse seine boats would come into Anacortes docks during the summer fishing season. Most were Croatian’s and since mother could fluently speak the language this was a big drawing card for the boat cooks many of whom spoke only limited English. Dad gave the boat owners credit for the season and they would pay off the bill from the summer earnings at end of the season. Not all seasons were successful and some accounts were carried for more then one season. But dad said they never lost a dime even though some took several years to pay. 

Each weekend, boat cooks would radio the cannery their grocery orders and the cannery would telephone our house relaying the grocery order for the boat. Most calls came in during the early morning hours. My sisters, Anita and Phyllis, would be up, take the calls and  write the orders down. The orders would be given to the store where employees begin preparing the orders putting the groceries in boxes labeled with the name of the fishing boat. Each weekend the local bakery was exclusively devoted to baking bread for dad's store for delivery to the boats. Many boxes of french bread stacked on end with white butcher shop paper covering them were stacked all over the back of the store ready for delivery.Delivery to the boats was made to the many fuel docks along the water where fishing boats were tied up on weekends. Large supplies of groceries, jugs of wine, boxes of french bread, blocks of ice (there were no refrigerator’s on the boats) were all hauled by a small fleet of old trucks from our store to the many cannery docks in town and loaded directly on the boat by a small army of weekend workers the store employed.

There were dozens of fishing boats tied up at all the docks in Anacortes each weekend. The boats were so numerous they would be tied side to side. This meant climbing over each boat with the boxes of groceries to reach the boat on the end. At low tide it would be necessary to lower the boxes by rope to the deck of the boat below and then cross boat to boat carrying the boxes to the boat at the end of the row. On weekends during the fishing season the town was alive with young men who worked on the boats. There were street dances and the taverns were full. On Sunday the entire crew of boats would leave for the week’s fishing in the San Juan Islands and return on Friday. Our family would work without much sleep during the fishing season.

I did some work in the summers as I got older delivering groceries to the boats and was involved in the annual inventory on New Year’s Day, but I did not spend the hours my sisters and parents did at the store. When I was sixteen I got work as a skiff man on the fishing boats each summer. This experience of working on boats with men who were much older in close quarters was better then a college education. My trips to Alaska on the fishing boats would generally start in late May and we would return mid summer for the season in Puget Sound. Nevertheless, the store was a central point of all our lives and was responsible for paying for the college education of my two sisters and me. The store was in the same location for thirty five years at the corner of Seventh avenue and Commercial in Anacortes. The original building is still there today.

Mother and dad spent sixty four years together until Dad’s death in 1990. While neither achieved more then a 6th grade education they impressed upon my two sisters and me the need for an education. There was never any doubt we were going to college. Any money we earned was always earmarked "for college" and it was driven home to us that education was the key to success in the United States. In fact all three of us children received a college education. My two sisters were always outstanding students and achieved college degrees with scholastic awards. In my case, dad was very pleased that I graduated from high school since I as always far more interested in athletics than grades . He was particularly pleased when I graduated from law school.

Dad and mother married in 1926. Mary T. Babarovich was the daughter of Peter and Marija Babarovich, the youngest of eight children. Her family emigrated from what was then Austria-Hungry. Together they operated the grocery store until they retired in 1957. They were married 64 years and had three children. My sisters Phyllis and Anita, both have continued to contribute to the community. We were taught the importance of education and all three of us have advanced college degrees.

In his retirement, dad started a second career as a wood carver. Among his many wood creations, his totem poles were very popular. He carved many poles during his retirement and his totem poles are Totem.dad displayed in such places as Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Yokohama, Japan and Stockholm, Sweden. His totem pole carving resulted in his self published  book, How to Carve Totem Poles. It was self published with his savings after being rejected repeatedly by publishers. However, when national columnist Mike Royko got a letter from dad with the book  and decided to publish a column it began to sell. The book was reprinted eleven times it  sold so well. This resulted in international publicity about this Italian immigrant who, in his retirement, carved Indian totem poles. The Weyerhaeuser Company obtained one of his poles in 1974 and gave it to Tacoma’s Point Defiance park for the Tacoma Garden club display. In 1979 when he was 81 years old the Swedish consulate in Seattle arranged for one of his totem poles to be shipped to Stockholm and placed in a park there as part of the trip involving Northwest Eagle scouts who would be going to Sweden.

Dad was very active in community service for his entire life in Anacortes. He was one of the those community leaders who created the Anacortes Mariner’s Pageant that promoted the town and was annual event for many years. To promote the pageant he was involved in creating such events as the "Cat Putter Outer Contest and a pajama race involving beds and men dressed in pajamas. One idea earned the criticism of the religious community in Anacortes when he promoted a wedding of a number of couples at the same time in the public park as part of the pageant.

His many community accomplishments included his role in the construction of the famous Deception Pass bridge connecting San Juan Island to Whidbey Island. Constructed in 1935 with money from th Roosevelt administration it was an vital link between the two islands. Pearl Wanamaker who was a former legislator and State School Superintendent came to the Anacortes Chamber of Commerce to promote construction. "Shares" at $10 each were sold to raise $1000 which she used to promote construction. Dad was at the ribbon cutting ceremony July 31, 1935 for his role in the promotion.

He played a very significant role in the construction of the public swimming pool in Anacortes. His other  achievements include the fact he organized the first parent-teacher association in Anacortes. He was very active in the Anacortes Chamber of Commerce and was a life time member of the Anacortes Rotary Club. He joined the Fidalgo Masonic Lodge No. 77. He was president of the  Washington State Grocer's Association as well as the Washington State Food Dealer's Association. He was awarded Skagit County's Liberty Bell Award in recognition of this life long contribution to community activities. This unique man, whose education never got past the 6th grade, was elected to the Washington State Senate and was responsible for securing the construction of a new highway into Anacortes because the existing one often flooded. Many years later and after his retirement, the state legislature designated that highway as the Paul Luvera Sr. Highway.

He was very proud of becoming a United States Citizen and flew the American flag at his house daily. He believed this was the greatest country in the world and taught us children that we owed a duty of contributing back to this wonderful country. He was a truly amazing story of the American dream who arrived with nothing, had only a grade school education and achieved so much for his family and his community. Here's to you dad, rest in peace.

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