grandpa tony.

April 15, 2010 § 8 Comments

my father uploaded some photos of my grandfather — some of them are so striking!
here are three of my favorites:


1948.


with my grandmother, for whom i’m named.


news reporter.

his life really was quite interesting. copied below is the beautiful eulogy written by my pops.

When Character Met Opportunity: A Eulogy for Dad
Anthony E. Schiappa, Jr.
April 3, 2009

“Eulogy” is from eu-logos and is typically translated as good words or good
speech but it can also mean a good account. What I’d like to do today is to give a
speech that praises my father, but also gives a good account of the man. My father’s life
can be summarized many ways, of course, but today I will tell you about his Gangster
Parents and Dad’s journey from Biscayne Bay to Subic Bay to Tampa Bay. I call this
story “When Character Met Opportunity.”

Many of you know my father was adopted. Dad did not know this until he was
31 years of age. The FBI told him was that his biological parents were Sam Comer and
Mae Blalock, two teenagers in Knoxville, Tennessee and that he was adopted by Louis
& Margaret Schiappa from the Irene Hasley Home for Friendless Babies (yes, that
really was its name). For the next 48 years, he believed he was abandoned by unwed
teens he sometimes called “Tennessee hillbillies.” A little over a year ago, we
discovered the truth was a bit stranger than that.

Dad was born Curtis Blalock in December 1929. Mae Blalock never gave him up
for adoption.

Mae’s youth was no bed of roses. After her stepfather was killed when she was
10, she lived in an impoverished, crowded household full of half-siblings. Mae started
working at the local cotton mill as a child. Mae became pregnant soon after her 17th
birthday. “Black Tuesday,” typically marked as the start of the Great Depression,
occurred just six weeks before Dad was born. There could not have been worse time in
U.S. history to be starting out on your own, let alone as a single mother.

Jobs were scarce in Knoxville, so Mae left her beloved toddler Curtis with a
neighbor-friend in 1931 to find work out of state. Due to illness, the friend was forced
to pass him on to Mae’s grandmother, Lizzie Rogers, who promptly turned Curtis over
to the Hasley Home.

Mae’s mother told a juvenile court that she did not want Mae to have dad. Mae,
on the other hand, had every intention of returning to get him. She claimed that she
visited him in the Hasley Home during 1931 and provided what financial support she
could. She was told that he was not going to be given away for adoption, but of course
he was.

In November 1931, Curtis were released “on probation” to Louis and Margaret
Schiappa, and formally adopted in September 1932. I suspect they called him “Sonny”
during this time because his name could not be legally changed yet, and the nickname
stuck for years.

Louis “PeeWee” Schiappa was the son of Italian immigrant Anthonio Schiappa.
Louis was 18 when he married 17-year-old Margaret. Louis was a highly successful
bootlegger and thief. My dad had precious few memories about Louis, but remembers
that PeeWee was a snappy dresser and that he got to sit on his lap while driving one of
the large luxury cars Louis used for bootlegging. Louis did some jail time for
bootlegging, but not much. However, Louis was arrested in December 1934 in Georgia
for grand larceny and sentenced to Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He had been robbing
freight houses of everything from suits to cigarettes. He was released in late August
1936 but died soon after in a highway accident south of Knoxville.

Well, let me be blunt: Louis was killed while trying to commit highway robbery.
He and an accomplice had pulled over two college students and were robbing them
when a truck came by. The robbers told the students to douse the lights so the truck
couldn’t see them, and the truck subsequently struck and killed Louis instantly.

While PeeWee was in prison, Margaret had moved to Miami to be with her
family. There she met Albert William Breedon II. Margaret did not remain a widow
for long: Louis died on September 8th and she married Breedon on October 24th 1936.
They moved to New York, where Breedon’s family owned a factory and apparently did
well. Seven-year-old Sonny loved it there and Breedon’s family loved him. For
reasons no one alive knows, Margaret decided she didn’t like the scene and moved back
to Florida, taking Dad with her over the protestations of the Breedons.

The next few years were rough for Dad. Let me quote part of an account he gave
me a few years ago: “Margaret lived with a bookie named Dubs for a while. They
used to drink a lot and occasionally Dubs was abusive. I lived with them for a
while, but Dubs preferred that I stay out of sight, and they would give me a
quarter to go out for ‘dinner.’ I never ate with them. Jim Dooley and I would use
the quarter to play carpet golf. I grew quite skinny. Eventually, the family [his
grandmother and others] moved back to Miami from Tennessee and I moved in
with them. My meals improved.” I will say more about Jim Dooley anon but he
was dad’s lifelong friend and they were as close as any two brothers ever have
been.

Meanwhile, Dad’s biological mother Mae went on to live a rather colorful and
controversial life. Mae met and married a bona fide gangster named Basil “the Owl”
Banghart in 1932 and they remained together the rest of their lives.

Banghart had quite a storied career. The legend is that he had stolen more than a
hundred cars by the age of 26. He robbed banks and once stole over $100,000 in 1933
from a US mail truck. He spent a lot of time in and out of jail, becoming famous for his
ability to break out; as a result, he ended up in Alcatraz for over a decade. Once
released, he lived another 20+ years, peacefully and crime-free until his death in 1982.
Notably, Banghart was infamous enough that he was pursued and arrested by no less
than the #1 G-Man himself, J. Edgar Hoover, in 1942. Why do I share these details?
Because “the Owl” would have been Dad’s stepfather had Mae managed to keep him.
Mind boggling, isn’t it?

Mae herself did jail time, but received a pardon from the Governor of Tennessee
who agreed that she had committed no crime. There is a story that while awaiting trial
in Knoxville, Mae was working on a jailbreak plan and the number of guards was
doubled. Whenever “the Owl” would break out of prison, the police would come
looking for Mae to see what she knew. In part because she took a good picture, she was
in the papers regularly and was as famous as her husband.

Mae gave birth to a daughter named Margaret in May of 1934. Margaret is my
father’s half-sister. Dad never knew he had such a relative until only last year. They
had the chance to talk by phone and trade letters, though never met in person.
Mother Mae never intended for Dad to be adopted and was “devastated” when
she learned about it. “The Owl” and Mae apparently were planning to rescue Dad from
the Schiappas, but Fate (that is, going to jail) prevented it. Mae’s granddaughter recalls,
“leaving Curtis was my Grandmother’s biggest regret in life. Sometimes, I would see
her with a far away look in her eyes, and I would ask her what she was thinking about—
she said ‘My Curtis’.” The baby picture you see was on Mae’s dresser her whole life.

I share the story of Dad’s gangster parents to make a point: Given the crushing
poverty of the Depression, the precariousness of Dad’s early home life, it is not only
praiseworthy but astounding that he grew up to be the man he was.

The choices we make result from a combination of Character and Opportunity.
Without a loving and supportive grandmother, he might well have ended up on the
streets instead of high school. His dear friend and “brother” Jim Dooley went on to
college and NFL fame as a football player and coach of the Chicago Bears (and the
inventor of the nickelback defense). It may be that Jim’s early triumphs helped Dad
understand that two former caddies could go on to success. In high school he was
exposed to the guidance of a kind but strict teacher, Al Wright, of whom Dad spoke
highly his whole life. Al Wright was the Miami High School band director who also codirected
the half-time show at the Orange Bowl, and later spent 27 years as Purdue
University’s Director of Bands. Kids raised mostly on the streets don’t go on to share
music with their kids as diverse as Bach and the Beatles, but those who had the
opportunity to learn from Al Wright would be more likely to do so.

These people, as important as they were to Dad’s life, could not determine its
outcome. No doubt his life would have turned out dramatically different if, for
example, Mae & Sam got married, or if Mae & “the Owl” gained custody of Curtis, or if
Louis had lived, or if Margaret stayed with the wealthy William Breedon. It would be
an interesting parlor game to imagine the alternate realities that would have come to
pass had my father’s early life turned out differently. But it was what it was, and it is a
credit to my father and those who cared about him that he by the age of 18 he was
bright, healthy, and not in jail.

In 1948 Dad enlisted in the Navy, which he calls the best decision of his life. He
became a photographer and after he was discharged in 1952, the G.I. Bill gave him the
opportunity to complete a college education. Meanwhile, in 1950 at the tender age of
20, he married 19-year-old Jacquelyn Thompson, my mother, and started a family. A
youthful decision, perhaps, but obviously one for which my three siblings and I are
profoundly grateful!

Opportunity opens the door to college, but Character has to get you through.
Despite having two small children and working part-time, Dad finished his bachelor’s
degree at the University of Miami in three years. From 1955 until 1962 he was a
reporter or editor variously at the Miami Herald, Palatka Daily News, Lakeland
Ledger, Tampa Times, and Tampa Tribune.

Then, as you all know, he joined the F.B.I. Dad and the FBI were made for each
other: It was a perfect match between Opportunity & Character, and he prospered.

After spending 10 years in the field, assigned to Dallas, Fort Worth, Kansas City,
and for 6 long but wonderful years in Manhattan Kansas, Dad was promoted to FBI
Headquarters in 1972. The fact we stayed in Kansas so long was my fault. My father
took me to his office once (and only once) on a Saturday. I got bored so I wrote J.
Edgar Hoover a letter saying that he ought to assign a third agent to the office because
Manhattan “was a big place with crime all around.” This letter immediately landed on
Hoover’s desk and for some reason he thought my father had put me up to it. Shortly
thereafter, a promotion to HQ was blocked when Clyde Tolson wrote, “We don’t want
this agent here.” It is no coincidence that almost immediately after Hoover passed away
in 1972, my father was transferred. The extra five years in Manhattan were, as my
students say, “My Bad.”

Dad was transferred to D.C. specifically because of his writing skills and
exemplary record as a Special Agent, and he did a lot of writing for the FBI. He went
to work in the Office of Public and Congressional Affairs and was promoted to
chief of the research unit of the external affairs division before he was done. I
have read my father’s entire personnel file and can assure you it is full of
wonderful accomplishments and high praise from his superiors. He spent the rest
of his career at FBIHQ, including stints as spokesman to the media, aide to highranking
FBI officials testifying before Congress, speechwriter for Director
Clarence M. Kelley, and technical consultant to films and the TV series “Today’s
FBI.” As some of the photos you have seen demonstrate, he had his brush with
Hollywood, meeting stars including Mike Conners and Jack Palance.

After his retirement from the FBI in 1984, Tony worked for the U.S. Capital
Historical Society until deciding to relocate to St. Petersburg.

My mother passed away in 1980 at the age of 49. Perhaps that tragic,
premature death in a way reminded my father that our time on this planet is
precious and short. In any case, my father was fortunate enough to meet a Kiwi
named Carolyn, whom he married in 1984.

The ancient Greeks invented the eulogy, and Socrates noted that it is not
difficult to praise Athens among Athenians, but I have to praise Floridians in
Florida because it is clear to me that the last 26 years were the happiest of my
father’s life. Together with Carolyn, he was able literally to travel the world,
including Russia, the Caribbean, Alaska, Europe, Turkey and Greece, Australia &
New Zealand. He got to play golf year-round, which he loved. He finally got to
own a boat, and I remember him telling me that the happiest two days of a
boater’s life are, #1, the day the boat is bought, and #2, the day the boat is sold.

Carolyn, I’ve spent the last week with you and I know now better than at
any time before how much you loved my father. Now, “Tony’s kids” love our
mother and always will, but we also love you, and we are grateful that you came
into our father’s life and helped to make the last 26 years such a joy for him.

I suspect many of you are learning something you didn’t know about my
father, and I am no exception. I only learned this week that my father did
volunteer work with grade school children learning to read and write, two of his
passions, and a photo in the lobby show him with his students. I also just learned
that he loved to dance.

I suspect this is true just about everyone—we all have stories, experiences,
and accomplishments that even those close to us might not know about. So I hope
this experience will encourage all of you, as it has me, to keep the bonds of
friendship and family strong, because each of our books do have a final chapter,
and we do not write them alone. All of our life chapters are co-authored, so to
speak, and it is good to stay in touch with our co-authors.

I want to close by quoting my father twice more. My brother Pat found an
article in the St. Petersburg Times about the apparently trivial act of tipping in
restaurants. But what my father had to say shows an admirable empathy to what I
think of as the Mae Blalocks of the world.

“Let’s consider the server for a moment, a waitress say,” he writes.
“She probably works an eight-hour shift, on her feet, carrying heavy
trays of food, trying to keep everyone’s orders straight, taking guff
from ill-tempered, finicky diners. She may have a couple of kids at
home depending on her. Maybe her boyfriend has just announced he’s
splitting. Maybe she has a touch of arthritis.” Do what you want,
Schiappa writes. He’ll continue to tip well.

The last quote is from my 5th grade autograph book, in which he wrote, with his
characteristic wit, “To Eddie; May his father live a long and prosperous life.” A
well-turned phrase, and one that turned out to be an accurate prediction.

Thank you for sharing this day with us.

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§ 8 Responses to grandpa tony.

  • Alan Chambers says:

    I was doing a google search for “The Home for Friendless Babies” today and found this. Looks like our fathers were at the home together in the early 1930’s. Wow.

  • Debbie Bourquin says:

    OMG – Mae Blalock/Banghart is my Aunt. I’ve been doing a little reseach on the Blalock family. Margaret is my cousin, and one of Mae’s sisters is my mom. I remember my mom briefly mentioning Curtis but I’ve not known too much about him. If I understand, Curtis was renamed Tony when he was adopted and he is your grandfather? Is this correct? I’d love to hear from you = we may be family! 🙂 My e=mail is kc7gvu@wavecable.com. THanks!

    • Anonymous says:

      Hi there, the e-mail address is still good. Good to hear back from you (even 2 yrs. later 🙂 ).

      My address is 480 RIver Road
      Sequim, WA 98382
      Phone: 360-683-5949

      If you are interested in geneology, I’d be happy to share with you what I found out. Did you know that Mae’s husband was a well known gangster during his time?

      Hope to talk to you soon.
      Debbie Bourquin

  • daniel m lipscomb says:

    A close friend of mine is currently living in & restoring the Home for Friendless Babies. I have spent a bit of time roaming the old place myself ,pondering the children who lived there and what their lives became. This was a fascinating tale written here about one of those children. I enjoyed it and it’s odd to think of a Special Agent of the FBI coming out of such a place. I have seen some of that sort of thing before.

    • Edward Schiappa says:

      Thank you, Daniel. Do you know whether your friend knows much about the history of the Hasley Home? I would love to find some photos from the 1930s if there are any still around.

      • Daniel M Lipscomb says:

        I know a bit about the house, general info really. 2336 Woodbine was built in 1898 and apparently had the original address of 2343. It is constructed in the big and boxy American Four Square Style. It is linked in someways to the house next door as I see it, 2330 Woodbine Ave, which was built by the Fire Chief of The Knoxville Fire Department. They were built the same year, both are 4 Squares, 2330 sits on a double lot, 2336 (Hasley Home) sits on a Triple Lot, indicating to me that the original family/builder wanted and could afford a buffer on both sides of their massive abode. No doubt in my mind the 3 lot layout with the house centered in the middle came into play in ordaining this massive house an Orphanage in later years, there was room for lots of kids to play on both sides of the house and these lots belonged to the house itself. In 1898 there are only 4 houses on Woodbine, Two respectable 2 story Victorians (the Vickys stand yet, one nearly in ruin last I saw it) that are several blocks apart and the two 4 squares that sit with a lot between them and a lot on both sides of them. The two 4 Squares lay between the Vickys, when only these 4 houses stood everyone on Woodbine Ave had plenty of privacy, this was Country Living still, but the people of Knoxville were moving out this way quickly. Today there are few empty lots on Woodbine, the few that are empty usually still have the concrete steps coming up from the street to a house that no longer exists in this dimension. Otherwise it is one lot, one house, neatly layed out, Victorian Cottages, Craftsmans and Cape Cods from when the neighborhood really took off in the 1900-1930’s. Woodbine Ave runs east and west, parallel to 5th Ave and Magnolia Ave due south and Jefferson Ave, Washington Ave and East Glenwood due North. Magnolia is a main artery running east out of The Old City, so in their day these house were and still are nicely located a few layers deep off the main drag that feeds the area. The ‘hood is known as Parkridge, it’s boundaries being Winona Ave north to south in the west and Cherry Street north to south in the east. Washington Ave is main drag of sorts. Several Big Vickys on Washington were restored by HGTV a few years back. The famous architect George F Barber designed many homes here, he had a deal with the folks developing the Washington Ave lots so his work is manifold on that street, his designs have been traced and found all over the country. Mr. Barber designed and built several of his own residences in this neighborhood, he died in his last house on East Glenwood due north of Washington Ave. Google Barber. After you’ve seen his work you ponder how it would be to live in such a house as what he could design. His work is/was incredible. ParkRidge is a “Transitional Neighborhood”, or so I have heard it called. Some parts of the ‘hood transitioned to crack dealers, subsidized squalor and hookers on patrol when the Growth (money) marched West and never stopped. The big Vickys, Four Squares, Craftsmans and whatnot wrapped in their poplar siding that required painting, with their 9 or 10 foot ceilings that cost a fortune to heat and cool and their often warped and busted wooden windows were no longer desireable. Vinyl siding, bigger lots and name brand neighborhoods are all to be found out west. Parkridge is now Transitioning back into a respectable place, with unmatched architecture at rock bottom prices. Many hardworking folks are taking advantage of this and large and small homes alike are being reborn, restored better than they were new. It is a patchwork quilt in some ways, blight and shabbyness is often side by side with meticulous restoration. Pride of Ownership has improved entire blocks and the neighborhood as a whole in just the past decade or so. 2330 & 2336 if I recall correctly were both originally constructed with dual lighting, gas and electric, Probably a costly but necessary thing. Electricity was relatively new and unreliable so gas lighting was plumbed in also. It would be several decades before that Socialist Demon FDR would sign The REA into existence and rich and poor folks alike would have access to reliable power. Heat in both came from coal and wood fired hearths in nearly in every room. Both of these houses sprouted massive chimneys from all over the roof. 2343 is minus all of it’s Hearths, logical if you have a house full of children and little oversight. They have been completely removed if memory serves right. You can see where they were but they have been wrecked out. It still has one chimney I think. 2330 has it’s ornate hearths, the beautiful centerpeice of every room. 2330 was very close to being demolished when it was purchased by a man who thought it worth saving. Though it took years and lots of different folks involved, he pulled it off, he lives there today in what I have long thought to be part museum part millionaire quality home. 2330 lived a little harder life than the orphanage next door, it’s massive front porch rotted off and was removed as well as some other insults to the original structure. It has returned to a greater glory now with modifications and improvements forthcoming. 2330 was a boarding house owned by the railroad for some years, this time period may overlap with 2336 being an orphanage. 2336 is currently undergoing a facelift as if to keep up with it’s life partner across the lot. As far as returning the old orphanage to it’s glory, I’m not sure what that would be. Have a looksee:

        http://cmdc.knoxlib.org/cdm/search/collection/p16311coll1!p15136coll3!p265301coll005!p265301coll7/searchterm/friendless/field/all/mode/all/conn/and/rmcoll/p16311coll1/order/nosort/ad/asc

        These are from the Orphanage days and contain some pretty powerfull imagery. The girl in the rocking chair on the front porch holding the other crying child bears a close look. Filthy feet, no shoes, scarred knees, the checkered institutional outfits and that look in her eyes kinda haunts you. I have been on that porch and after seeing that picture it all kinda spooks me. The other pictures are good, the full scene of kids on the porch has some good details. In particular the two little people sitting as close together as possible between the collums at the top of the steps. You ended up at this house on Woodbine because you were “friendless”, but no doubt some friendships were made. A woman stands half out of the door, watching her charges Also The Knoxville Junior League references being involved with the orphanage:

        http://www.jlknoxville.org/?nd=did_you_know

        The major changes visible from 1925 to 2012 are thus: The shake roof got covered with a metal roof that now shows some age, the shake is there still, you can see the backside of it in the attic. The small dormer windows on top got changed out, it appears the originals were allready damaged by the mid twenties. Most of the chimneys are gone, probably when the metal roof was installed they were wrecked out. In these pictures the house is not even three decades old yet it appears to be completely unpainted, or rather all the paint is gone. That is possible, I have painted several homes in this neighborhood of this same vintage. One that I painted was a 1892 Queen Anne Victorian on 5th Ave that has been undergoing a long term restoration. Long term meaning it is being lovingly restored after being abandoned by several owners, gutted, all the windows ripped out and occupied by homeless folks and prostitutes for several decades, ultimately it was seized by The City/ Knox Historic Preservation Folks. By the time my friend and I painted the house it was a Gray House for the most part, gray as in weather washed poplar siding with no trace of the old paint, the same condition the orphanage appears to be in nearly thirty years after it’s construction as a private home on it’s plus sized foot print. There is a Barber Victorian on Washington Ave that is still a Gray House and I have it heard it argued that it was never painted at all. It can be seen on Google maps street view, the corner of Washington Ave and Boruff. The twin 4 squares on Woodbine can also be seen, roughly halfway between the cross streets of Spruce and Olive. This is several years ago, both are in white, 2330 is undergoing it’s rebirth and has regained it’s front porch which shows new unpainted siding underneath it. Ultimately it will be painted the exact shade of green it was given in 1898, some of the original paint survived on some the boards under the eaves and it was duplicated. Both of these houses, one a one time orphanage, the other a one time boarding house no doubt lived these lives because of their generous sized interiors. You can pretty much get lost in both of them, especially The Old Orphanage, it is huge inside. As the private residences they are now, they are roomy and charming in a way that only comes about when houses are over a 100 years old and ready for the next century of life to pass through their many doors. The two couples who now live in these houses are very close friends, I am friends with them all, I was working at 2330 today with the man who lives in and is restoring 2336. We had some shovel and dirt work, some framing and nailing, all of it good and honest labor behind The Old Boarding House. At the end of the day we all passed the Large Mason Jar around. After all, this is Knoxville ,Tennessee that we’re talking about.

  • Anonymous says:

    All I can say is WOW & THANK YOU SO MUCH!!! I am going to save this to my FB so that I will be able to read over and over!! I love History and gosh what a wonderful story you have written!!!! Your Farther was a AMAZING MAN to think what all he went thru and never gave up. He pushed forward and made something of his life and for his family !! I love the story of his best friend Tom Dooley I rember him so well growing up and Coaching football because I am a hughe football fan of the NFL and also College ( SEC) football! Of course my FAVORITE COLLEGE is The University of Tennessee my Uncle Leonard Coffman played from 1938 to 1940 his number was number 11. He played full back and was the 1st player to jump over the offensive line on the 1 yard line and score a touchdown!

  • Jean Nichols says:

    I sent before leaving info! I never could bring up the pictures but would love to see them. Wishing you & your family A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!!# Thanks again I enjoyed so much your story!!!!

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