Eight years ago today, my father-in-law, Tony Guerra, passed away after a brief battle with cancer. A few days later, I had the honor of delivering the eulogy at his funeral. In addition to celebrating a life remarkably well-lived, I hoped to deliver a message to his grandchildren and to challenge them to live a life true to the precepts their grandfather lived by and that he and his wife, Peggy, passed on to their own children and their spouses. I managed to narrow down those precepts to six, which I’d like to share in this post as a reminder to those grandchildren and as a tribute to Tony.
Life Lesson Number 1: No job is too small. Tony understood the integrity of honest labor. Throughout his lifetime, he worked as much as he could, including well into many evenings, on weekends, and until his deteriorating health made it impossible. After he began working at Lake Erie Welding in 1955, he went nearly nine years before conjuring the nerve to ask for a vacation. As owner/operator, no matter how minor the job, he tried never to tell a customer that “he didn’t have time for it.” He would make time. Nor would he ever accept that a job was beyond his capabilities. With hard work and mechanical ingenuity, he would find a way to get the job done. Many of his jobs were in far-from-pleasant work conditions, as in the packing house or in a furnace at Ford, but in his soul, Tony knew that all work was noble and that, after his faith and his family, it is a man’s work ethic that best defines him. He believed with all of his heart and proved with his deeds that no matter how humble your beginnings, if you work hard and believe in yourself, you can do most anything to which you set your mind.
Life Lesson Number 2: No favor is too big. There was next to nothing Tony wouldn’t do for someone in need. Many were the times that he gave cash from his own pocket – cash that would have gone a long way at home – to others he knew to be in greater need. More than once, complete strangers have tapped me on the shoulder and told me of a difficult time in their lives when Tony, or Mr. Tony, or Mr. Guerra provided them with a job, or a loan, or some kind of opportunity otherwise unavailable to them. In turn, he never forgot those who helped him along the way.
Life Lesson Number 3: Live, Laugh, and Love. One of Peggy’s most enviable traits is her ability to slow down and to live in and enjoy life’s moments. More than anyone I have ever known, she understands that the beauty of living is in the little things, in the smallest of details. This truism ran completely counter to Tony’s “get there and get it done” nature; however, whether on the boat or in the car, he sheepishly acquiesced to Peggy’s “Slow down, Tony!” And although he loved to brag to Peggy that he “took her out of poverty and halfway around the world,” it was Peggy who taught Tony the difference between living and living well. LIVE!
Tony’s had an infectious smile that spread from ear to ear. He truly enjoyed people and went out of his way to ensure that everybody felt welcome in his company. Possessed with natural charisma and a magnetic personality, he drew people of all ages and backgrounds to him like none other. LAUGH!
Most likely because he was as comfortable in his own skin and as lacking in pretensions as any person I have ever known, Tony showed a genuine interest in everyone and made friends with remarkable ease. Tony had bosom friends from all walks of life and from all classes of society, but he treated and valued them all equally. Whenever he and Peggy went on vacation, they invariably came home with new friends. And once you were a friend of Tony Guerra’s, you were always his friend, which is proven by the many who were his friends for decades. LOVE!
Life Lesson Number 4: The test of a truly great man is humility. Tony’s father once told him that “if you see a man coming towards you and you have to cross the street to avoid him, you’re not a very good person.” One point being that a good person maintains a clear conscience and can always look another in the eye. The other point is that the day you think you’re too good for anybody, you’re better than nobody. During his time, Tony graced many ballrooms and boardrooms, but he was never more in his element than when wearing his blue work shirt, with his name on a patch, working the shop floor. Despite the many hard earned rewards of his success, there wasn’t an ounce of arrogance, avarice, ostentation, or snobbery in Tony. Until the end, he lived in the modest three bedroom house he built with his own hands and in which he and Peggy raised their children. He wasn’t perfect, and he’d be the first to admit he’d made mistakes, but I guarantee you that, in his entire lifetime, Tony Guerra never slunk across the street to avoid another man’s gaze.
Life Lesson Number 5: A man’s greatest reward comes from belonging to groups larger than himself. Nothing mattered more to Tony than family, both the one he was born into and the one he and Peggy created and nurtured together. A person’s greatest inheritance is his name. Tony worked tirelessly not only to protect but also to burnish the good name of Guerra in Sandusky, and he shuddered at the notion of ever tarnishing that same good name. Tony also took great pride in his Sammarinese heritage; in his country; in his Catholic faith and his membership in Sts. Peter and Paul Parish; in being a Sanduskian; in his naval service; in being a Blue Streak; in being a Panther; in being a Buckeye; in being a member of the Elks, the K of C, the Rotary Club, and in serving on the boards of various local entities.
Finally, and I think most importantly, is Life Lesson Number 6: There is no room in life for self-pity. The opportunities to feel sorry for himself were numerous. He began school unable to speak English. As a boy, he was made to butcher the family’s goat, which he had come to love as a pet, for the evening meal. After he had proudly made the high school golf team, his father broke his clubs over his knee. Times were tough. Tony was expected to work, and the time demand of sports participation was a luxury the family couldn’t afford. He saw his sister, Ann, pass away far too young. In the navy, although happily appointed as Company Clerk, he was reassigned and ordered to attend welding school instead. After the service, he toiled long hours for low pay for many years before rising to partnership at Lake Erie Welding, which only resulted in longer hours, After becoming sole owner and recognizing the need for expansion, he was turned down time after time for bank loans. His most reliable customers, the manufacturing plants of Sandusky, closed one after another. He lost all of the fingers on his left hand in machining accidents. He had to have both knees replaced and one hip; and he had open heart surgery and contracted cancer of the esophagus. Despite all of these hardships, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who ever heard him complain or use any of these setbacks as a reason to quit. Self-pity was anathema to Tony Guerra, and the rejection, defeat, and suffering he endured only made his ultimate acceptance, success, and joy that much sweeter in the end.
After her father’s death, my wife, Julie, began quilting specialty quilts to mark special occasions in the lives of the Guerra grandchildren. On each quilt, she includes six stars as reminders of the six lessons I outlined in my eulogy. They are beautiful keepsakes.
To know Tony Guerra was to want never to disappoint the man out of respect for his own lofty self-expectations. As his son-in-law, I continue to strive in all I do to be worthy of his daughter and of his respect. I can only hope that I haven’t disappointed him.
Finally, it was always nearly impossible to think of Tony singly. I mean, I know there was a time before Peggy moved to town when they lived separate lives, but for the majority of their lives, it was always “Tony and Peggy.” On his own, he was larger-than-life. Together, they were a force of nature. Therefore, the world has not been the same these past eight years without him or the amalgam of Tony and Peggy.
It was impossible eight years ago and remains so today to capture the essence of Tony Guerra and his influence on me, his family, and his community with the too few words at my disposal and spoken over too few minutes or included in this post.
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