‘Don’t be a turtle’: A father’s advice to three strong daughters

Italian immigrant Frank Damico and his wife, Anna, are pictured with Anna’s family at their wedding in 1919 at San Francesco Church in Detroit. Almost 100 years later, the couple’s three daughters still marvel at their father’s hardworking legacy.

Clinton Township — It was 1904 when Frank Damico arrived in New York City. He had no family around, didn’t have any friends, couldn’t speak English and barely had a penny to his name.

It’s 2017, and Rosemary Damico Leone and Frances Damico Orlando sit in Frances’ kitchen in her Clinton Township home, reminiscing about the man they called Dad, who came to this country with nothing, but gave them everything.

“When my father got here, he had no money, couldn’t read or write or speak English and had to make a living,” Leone said. “So he got a little cart in New York City, peddling fruits and vegetables.”

During the turn of the century, Damico’s story is like thousands of others, coming to a new country, seeking new opportunities.

What makes Damico’s story his story is his decision to go to Detroit.

“Through friends, he heard Detroit was a good place to make a good paycheck because of the auto industry,” Leone said. “My dad came to work at an auto factory, and was there for a short time, and felt he wanted to better himself. He wasn’t satisfied with being in a factory environment; the shops weren’t part of his personality.”

Damico, who married his wife, Anna, at San Francisco Church in Detroit in 1919, started a business: National Butter, Eggs and Cheese Wholesale, which he operated out of his garage next to the family flat on Fisher Street and Mack Avenue in Detroit.

“He used to go to the farms early in morning, pick fresh eggs, cheese and butter, using gadgets in the garage to separate the eggs and sell to different retailers and grocers in the city,” Leone said. “At the same time, he went to night school to learn more about writing and learning. He worked toward becoming a citizen. If you had a citizenship paper, it seemed to him like you were on top of the world.”

Orlando and Leone, and their older sister Theresa Damico Green, grew up in the four-family flat on Mack and Fisher in what they describe as a typical Italian-Catholic family. They were members of St. Catherine Parish on Seminole Street – now St. Augustine-St. Monica Parish.

Never wanting to settle, Frank Damico bought rental units on Detroit’s east side, always looking for a way to make an extra dollar.

Rosemary Damico Leone, 94, left and her sister, Frances Damico Orlando, 92, reminisce in Orlando’s Clinton Township home about their upbringing in an immigrant family in Detroit during the Great Depression. Not pictured is their sister, Theresa Damico Green, 97. Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic

In 1929, the Great Depression started, but Damico’s business stayed open and the family moved to McMillan Road in Grosse Pointe Farms.

“Our dad provided for us well,” Orlando said. “Rosemary and I used to bake a lot. Dad used to tell us how lucky we were to bake cookies with real butter. We were in the depression, and we were one of the first families to have an electric refrigerator. People would come over, and him being a generous person, knowing how hard it was out there, felt sorry for families and gave them spare food.”

When the family moved to Grosse Pointe Farms, the Damicos became parishioners of St. Paul on the Lake. Green, the oldest of the three sisters, graduated from St. Catherine High School before nursing school at St. Joseph Mercy on Grand Boulevard, while Leone and Orlando attended St. Paul on the Lake before graduating from Grosse Pointe High School.

Proud and independent, Frank Damico was always looking for ways to teach his daughters the value of hard work.

“For us, life was comfortable in a conservative home,” Orlando said. “Dad didn’t allow us to have things easily. Our allowance was 25 cents a month and we had to work for it.”

All three of the sisters eventually married and moved out, now living into their 90s. Between the three of them, they have six children, 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Damico stayed in business until 1947 before retiring to his Grosse Pointe Farms home. He died May 1, 1975, at the age of 88.

“What I remember about my father was he was strong — a survivor,” said Green, now 97 and living in Texas after meeting her husband in the service while she was a nurse in World War II. “He was left with three children to raise and maintain a job, while being a strong, great example for us.”

Green lives with her family in Texas, while Leone and Orlando live in Michigan. Leone is a parishioner at St. Hubert in Harrison Township, and Orlando sang at choirs at St. Dorothy in Warren, St. Michael in Sterling Heights and St. Paul of Taurus in Clinton Township, even singing for St. John Paul II during his Mass at the Pontiac Silverdome in 1987.

The three credit staying active, mentally and physically, for their health in their later years — a tribute to their ever-hardworking father, who traveled so far and gave so much to establish his family on American shores.

“I know how he struggled to get where he was,” Leone said. “God gave him a mind, a body, and he used it to go out and better himself. We all have stories we tell our grandkids, our great-grandkids. He took risks, he bettered himself, he did it all for his family.

“The best thing he ever told us, ‘Don’t be a turtle.’ Go out and develop good memories for your family, and a good legacy to leave behind.”