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:
with my grandmother, for whom i’m named.
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
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
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
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
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.