A Self-Made Man

He never made it to high school. At 12 years old, during the Great Depression, he lost his father. His formal education ended then as he took on any odd job he could find to help support his mother and the family.

Despite that inauspicious start in life, he taught himself mechanical, civil and hydraulic engineering. Among projects he would be involved in during his career: Niagara Falls Hydroelectric Power Plant, Pratt & Whitney’s factory for the first Boeing 747 engines, the MX Missile System.

He was a survivor of the 1918 flu pandemic. His twin brother, Albert, did not make it.

Claude Albert Paolini would be 100 years old today, Feb. 18, 2018.

He was a first-generation son of immigrants. He spoke only Italian until the age of five. He learned English in school and in the process learned to defend himself against the bullies who ridiculed his accent and ethnic origins.

He grew up in New York State but identified with the cowboy. And he wasn’t half bad as one himself. Sharpshooter, gunsmith, horseman, rancher. He could even lasso a steer. He brewed a mean cup of coffee. He played guitar and sang old cowboy songs with gusto. And nobody wore a Stetson with more authenticity.

Wedding day, June 1949.

He was a WW II vet who survived a plane crash. He spent three months in the hospital undergoing reconstructive surgery. It was there while recuperating that he received a letter from a young woman who — like many of her generation — was doing her patriotic duty by writing to soldiers. His new pen pal was Antoinette Vespalec from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They would eventually meet, fall in love, marry and raise a family of 10 children.

He was a skilled sketch artist. If you got up early enough, you could find him most mornings at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, a mechanical pencil and graphing paper. He’d draw little cartoon characters just for your amusement.

He was a jack-of-all trades — electrical, mechanical, plumbing, carpentry, welding — to name of few of the crafts in which he had more than a passing proficiency.

He was an inventor and relentless tinkerer. His prototype for a drafting device hung in his shop for years. Just before he died, he had designed and was building — from scratch — his own steam engine.

Plans for a steam engine.

He could make anything and usually out of nothing. As with many of his generation who survived the Depression, he was resourceful. Old scrap wood and recycled screws and nails could be transformed into a stylish desk, or table, or set of drawers.

He could fix anything. One summer we rented a beach house that had an old, broken piano in the parlor. He took the thing apart and essentially rebuilt it. This was — as always — amazing. But then he sat down and began playing a tune, revealing another of his myriad talents.

His repairs weren’t limited to inanimate objects. He was our field medic, patching up bruises and cuts of every kind. With so many kids, this was practically a daily duty. He even reset our cat’s broken leg, using a plastic doll’s leg as a cast. That animal followed him everywhere from then on.

He was a man of precision. He had an engineer’s appreciation for measuring and analyzing the world around him. As his kid, you learned your cold-rolled steel from cast steel, ferrous from nonferrous metals (and all of their melting points), hardwood from softwood. You knew the linear feet in a mile and the square feet in an acre.

He could calculate anything, using only a slide rule. Not that he needed it. Once, while on our weekly jaunt to the dump, we asked him to estimate the number of gallons in the nearby reservoir. (We loved to quiz him and he relished the challenge.) He explained, while negotiating the steep, curving road and while shifting the gears in the station wagon, that he had to multiply width by length by height, but that he also had to discount the sloping sides. He came up with the cubic volume and multiplied that by the number of gallons in a cubic foot (7.48 in case you have forgotten). His estimate: 100 million gallons.

A few years ago I dug up a newspaper article on that reservoir. At full capacity it holds: 100 million gallons. (Side note: it was built between 1906 and 1911 by Italian immigrants who used draft horses to haul the stone and to compact the earthen dam.)

He was a man of action and punctual to a fault. Except for a pocketwatch on Sundays, he did not wear a timepiece. But he was never late, usually early, and always impatient to get on to the next thing. He did not like to sit still.

He was a man of few words but profound thoughts. When he was feeling conversational, usually over a cup of coffee, he would preface a sentence with: “I imagine that …” What followed could be a theory about anything from the pyramids to time travel.

He had a great sense of humor. (His favorite joke: “Last year I couldn’t spell engineer, now I are one.”)

He was a man of his word. A handshake sealed the deal. He kept up his end of the bargain and more often than not went the extra mile.

He was generous. What he had, he had earned for himself. But without hesitation he was willing to share anything to help you out.

He was a man of principle. Despite threats and intimidation, he testified in an FBI investigation when an employer was embezzling federal funds intended for the Interstate system. He spent more than a few sleepless nights keeping vigil over his family, but his skills acquired as a child standing up to bullies came in handy. He did not back down.

His signature doodle.

He was a devoted husband. He and Antoinette were equal and supportive partners in virtually everything they did. The couple were routinely off on adventures, trying new businesses, pursuing new hobbies.

You did not want to make him mad. He would remind his kids daily. But he was (to borrow a line) “soft as smoke and tough as nails.”

After his kids were grown and gone, he would invite the whole tribe home. We would find ourselves in the kitchen and we would look around for him. But we knew where we’d find him: out in his workshop. He had things to do. He didn’t say he wanted to talk to us. He just wanted us nearby.

Oh, and he was a pretty good dancer.

Happy 100th Birthday, “Pop.” Luv ya.

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