How to succeed in business (by trying very hard)
Some people get their business education at a university. Rocco Vivolo didn’t need to do that. He learned right at home how to succeed in business – not just once, but time and time again.
His father, Luca Vivolo, set a great example for him. He moved to Farrell from Italy with nothing but determination. He brought his wife Rose over two years later.
“Neither of them could read, write, or speak English,” Rocco said, “but they made it work.”
Luca started out working in the steel mills. Within three years of arriving, he owned two houses on Beechwood Avenue. Before long his oldest son, Sam, had a shoe repair business on Haywood Street in Farrell. Rocco, who was born here in 1917, started working there as a shoe shine boy when he was eight years old.
“Customers paid ten cents for me to shine a pair of shoes,” Rocco said. “I’d give it all to my father, and he gave me a nickel a week. That was my salary.”
But that was only the beginning.
“My Dad put a little grocery store in our house,” Rocco said. “In 1929 when everybody lost their jobs, that’s what we lived on. I was about 13, 14 years old. My older sister, Jenny, was married, and Sam had his shoe repair shop. I was the next one in line. My brother Dan and sister Josephine were younger than me. So I had to run the store. I took care of everything. Then Dad made up his mind he wanted a gas station. He went to Pennzoil and they put two pumps in there. Then of course I had to run the gas station, too. That was while I was still in high school. In those days, you did what your father told you to do.”
Sometimes that led him in unexpected directions.
“Somehow he found out about our Junior-Senior Prom. He said to me, ‘You’re going to the dance.’ I said, ‘Dad, I don’t even know how to dance.’ Of course, I went to the dance.”
At the dance, the boys were in the bleachers on one side and the girls on the other side.
“Us guys were like dumb ducks. We were 15 years old and we didn’t know nothing. They played the first dance and we sat there. They played the second dance and my feet wouldn’t stay still. They played the third dance and I said I got to do something.”
He spotted a girl he knew from classes and asked her to teach him to dance. He danced all night long.
He started going to dances every Saturday at the ethnic clubs in Farrell. At one of them he got to dance with a Polish girl, but didn’t find out right away who she was.
“All I knew was that she was skinny and her slip was always hanging. We were just a bunch of kids out for a good time. We’d all ask each other who we were going to dance with. I said, ‘The skinny girl with the slip hanging.’ We got to know each other.”
Her name was Helen Wlodarski, the daughter of Polish immigrants Frank and Stella Wlodarski. They, too, had come to the area to work in the steel mills.
Rocco borrowed his brother-in-law’s 1924 Buick to take Helen to dances featuring big-name bands at places such as Idora Park, Conneaut Lake Park, and Yankee Lake.
“We went steady for about a year before we got married,” Helen said. “I got pregnant two months later, and our son Richard was born in 1939.”
“I was 21, working at the Westinghouse,” Rocco said. “We were living in my mother in law’s house. She couldn’t pay the mortgage, so she signed the house over to me. I paid the house off, we had a car, and we were looking good on $36 a week.
After working a short time at Westinghouse, Rocco went to work at Wheatland Tube as an electrician. That got him two deferments from military service, but not a third. He was drafted in 1942, shortly after the birth of their second child, Marlene.
Rocco served as a radio operator with army artillery units in Texas. His military service proved dangerous occasionally even though he never went overseas. Once when he and his buddies were at lunch, the air force accidentally dropped a bomb right where he had been sitting. Another time he and a buddy got lost chasing armadillos in the desert .
“That was scary,” he said. “Texas is a big place.”
Rocco brought Helen and Richard to live in Texas for about a year, leaving Marlene with Helen’s mother.
“But I didn’t like Texas,” Helen said, “so I came back and lived in Farrell for the rest of the war.”
Rocco was assigned to a dredge in San Francisco harbor just before the war ended.
“Ships coming in loaded with soldiers would hit bottom under the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said. “We’d suck up the mud from the bottom and dump it out in the ocean. One day we got rammed by a liberty ship.”
With their ship out of service, Rocco and his shipmates had nothing to do. But Rocco’s internal drive couldn’t stand the idleness, so he started earning extra money working for Railway Express and Delmonte’s – even while he was still in the army.
When he came home to Farrell, he went back to work at Wheatland Tube.
“I told them I didn’t want the electrician’s job, I wanted to operate the crane. The only crane that was running was in galvanizing. That was a stinking crane, but it was the only one that paid any money. I was working midnight, and it was colder than hell, and I had all my army clothes on, heater beside me and I was freezing.”
So Rocco got a crane job at Westinghouse. He worked there about 14 years, never turning down an opportunity to work overtime. But he really wanted to start his own business. He sold his home to raise money to buy the Isaly’s store right across Sharpsville Avenue from Westinghouse’s main office. That was just five months before Westinghouse workers went on strike.
“I thought with nobody working at Westinghouse it will take me 30 years to pay for this place. But I did better during the strike than I did in normal times.”
That was because Westinghouse management contracted with Rocco to supply food for the workers who stayed in the plant. And the union leaders got him to provide coffee and donuts for the picketers.
But Isaly’s wasn’t enough to satisfy Rocco.
“I always had it in my head I wanted a bowling alley. I didn’t know anything about bowling, but I joined up with two or three other guys who were already planning to build a new place.”
They opened Hickory Bowl in 1960. Then he bought Swirl Inn on Route 62, which had a fifteen room motel, a tavern, and five store rooms.
“I had 550 feet of ground on the main highway going to Mercer. And on the end they were selling mobile homes. So I was selling mobile homes, working at the bowling alley, and running Isaly’s. Sometimes I worked 19 or 20 hours a day, and I wouldn’t see my family for maybe a week or two. I’d come home late and get up early.”
In the late 1960s, Westinghouse cut back operations here. Fewer workers meant fewer customers at Isaly’s, so Rocco sold it. Then he sold interest in the bowling alleys, and finally he sold the Swirl Inn.
“But I said I can’t retire or I’ll go crazy.”
So he got a job as crane operator at Sharon Steel. Finally, about 1980, he retired and moved with Helen to a mobile home park in Homestead, Florida. Again, Rocco couldn’t stand to be idle. When the owner of the park asked him to run the park’s recreation center, he couldn’t refuse.
“When we would go down there about the first of October, the boss would give me say $500. He said, ‘You do whatever you want. You make money, you keep it. You lose money, I’ll give you more.’ One week I’d have a chicken dinner, the next week I’d have a pancake and sausage breakfast. Maybe on a Wednesday I’d have a flea market and I’d sell donuts and coffee and stuff like that. Every Saturday night we had a dance. We had people coming in from other trailer parks. People that lived there in houses came to our park on Saturday nights to see what was going on.”
“People in the park begged to work for us, to do volunteer work,” Helen said. “I was in charge of the kitchen. I had five girls working under me.”
But Helen didn’t like the heat and humidity, so after 17 years in Florida, they moved back to the Shenango Valley.
“Everything I did turned out good,” Rocco said. “I made money on everything I handled. And I had a good family.”
The only misfortune was the loss of their son Richard from diabetes in 1977.
“Outside of that, you just go on day after day and wish for the best. I can’t complain, but I never thought I’d live this long. My dad died at 69, and I figured if I made it to 69 I’d be doing good. Here I am, 91, and I still feel good. “
And Helen just keeps on smiling at the good memories.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009