April 25, 2010

Blaise J. Calandro, Jr. (my dad)

A Narrative History
Design Seminar II

On a Spring day in 1956, nine-year-old Blaise and his brother Charles exit the school bus at 4142 Government Street-right at the edge of South Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Blaise's routine is always the same. He enters the front screen door of his family's grocery store-known as Calandro's Grocery. The words "Plee-zing Food Store" are written in bold letters across the top of the white-painted concrete block building. There's a white and green striped awning above all six windows and the entrance door. From the bustle of the street, the four short aisles of product can be seen and Vennera Calandro, in her yellow and blue flower print apron atop her A-line cotton knee-length dress, stands behind the cash register, waiting to help the next customer. Her blackish brown hair is wavy and tucked into a bun at her neck. Her pale olive skin and brownish blue circles under her eyes make her look tired. But, she always has a smile on her face when her boys get off the bus and come into the store. "Hey mama," Blaise says to her as he grabs his moon-pie and Coca-Cola from the store shelf."

Some afternoons he goes to Duby's Field to play football with the boys from the neighborhood. Anywhere between ten and twenty kids will be out there picking teams and Blaise-because he's one of the fastest and most agile-is always picked first. Other afternoons he stays at the store to work doing a variety of activities for a reimbursement of $1/day. So, he decides to spend this afternoon organizing glass bottles for soda bottling companies to come pick up and reuse. Customers pay a fee if they don't return their used bottles to the store, and bottling companies won't pick up the bottles if they aren't sorted by brand name. So when customers come to do their shopping, they drop their bottles in the large wire bin that sits at the store entrance. Over a few days, the piles can turn into mounds of brown, green, and clear bottles with syrupy residue stuck to the bottom. One of Blaise's jobs is to carry these bottles around back and organize them. He has a routine for stack-and-sort that he's repeated so many times that it's seamless. Even though he'd prefer sports over work, he has a responsibility to his family business-and he's found a way to make it fun. He pauses, gazing intently at the bottles, and thinks back to the Dr. Pepper jingle he heard a few days before on the radio. He sings, "Drink Dr. Pepper. The friendly pepper upper. hmm hmmmm." He picks up an RC Cola bottle and places it to the RC Cola stack. Pauses. Does a little shake. And reaches for the next one. Stack. Shake. Hum. "The friendliest pepper upper in toooooown." This small routine done in the alleyway of Calandro's Grocery to the hum of refrigeration motors drowning out his high-pitched voice, is the start of a lifetime of self-satisfaction through productivity.

In the early 1900s, both sets of Blaise's grandparents came on a boat from Sicily to the States. Like many other families processed through immigration at the time, their last name was morphed from Calandra to Calandro at Ellis Island. At first, they settled in the rural towns of Tickfaw and Independence, Louisiana-where Vennera D'Anna and Brazil Calandro met and got married. Soon after, the newlyweds ventured to Baton Rouge with a vision and determination to succeed. Their Italian Catholic heritage was not welcomed by their Protestant counterparts-they had to live on the suburban outskirts of town, they weren't welcomed by many of the neighboring families, and elitist social clubs were not about to let the 'dagos' in. Oftentimes, Protestant white women would drive up to the front of the store in their Cadillac Devilles and-without eye contact-say to Blaise, "Hey. Son. Go get me a carton of cigarettes and a head of cabbage." Their upperclass attitude infuriated him-but reflecting back he says, "The way to overcome the stigma is by making something of yourself. And that's exactly what my parents did. And they instilled it in me." His family had no choice but to work hard. The store was the center of their universe. Little did Vennera and Brazil know just how successful their vision would be.

In 1963, when Blaise was a high-school junior, he maintained his athletic abilities from childhood-he was one of the best runners on the track team. But sports weren't his only talent. He had an intellect that gave him the curiosity to fix most anything from lawn mower motors to broken radios and televisions. The value and pride he found through work at an early age imprinted a work ethic that rose above most others. "I refused to let anyone think I owed them anything. I wouldn't even let my parents give me things. My dad and I had an unspoken deal-I would rather work for things than have them given to me. I don't want to be indebted to somebody because they gave something to me. I think my dad really respected that about me." Everything Blaise did, he did with utmost commitment-his motivation being simply the challenge to do his best. "I'd get so frustrated if I knew something could be better and I couldn't figure out how to make it better. The challenge was enough for me to work and work until I got that thing -whatever it was-to perform at its best. I guess that's why I pursued engineering-to create, make better, and fix what was broken. And I guess that's why I took on the challenge of making an already successful grocery business to be even more profitable." At that point in time, Blaise had decided that he didn't want to rely on the family business for success. He wanted to follow in his father's footsteps to make a life from the ground up. "Daddy was good at everything he did. He had a lot of street smarts and was a tremendously strong role model. To be as good as dad you had to be pretty damn good. To be better than him was almost impossible."

In 1968, Blaise graduated from Louisiana State University with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. For the next twenty-five years, he worked as an engineer for Ethel Corporation, Bernard and Burke, and Calandro Engineering and Electric-a freelance company that he started. When he was 31 years old, he got married to Debbie Parker, a southern belle from Natchez, MS. Until they had their two children-one boy and one girl-she worked full time as a registered nurse. Blaise had decided early on that he didn't want to work in the grocery business, and he followed through wholeheartedly. His only responsibility at the store-by then known as Calandro's Supermarket-was electrical maintenance and repair; a job that his father paid him to do.

On Saturday, April 23, 1993, Blaise and his family were in Natchez, MS for the funeral of Debbie's mother. That morning, he spoke to his dad on the phone. "We'll be there in a few hours. We're just leaving Baton Rouge. I love you, son." Blaise was somewhat taken aback when his dad said that he loved him, as this was usually an unspoken sentiment. About an hour later, Blaise received a phone call from the Mississippi State Police. A man in a red Toyota truck had fallen asleep at the wheel after an early morning fishing trip. He crossed over the white line of the two lane highway just in time for Brazil to say to Vennera-who was driving, "Honey, watch out." Blaise's mother spent the next six months in the hospital and the next year in rehab. His father, Brazil Joseph Calandro, Senior, at a healthy age of 82, was immediately killed.

Around a thousand people attended the wake. And hundreds more, the funeral. Blaise hadn't cried so intensely since he was a very young child. His respect for his father, and all the achievements of his life, was more apparent than ever before. Brazil started as an outcast minority. His dedication made the Calandro's name well-known within the confines of Baton Rouge. His father's death marked a transition point in Blaise's life. His career as an engineer came to an immediate halt when he was left with shared ownership of the business with his three brothers. He felt a responsibility to make his father proud, to help extend this Baton Rouge tradition into the future, and maybe even help make it better. "It was a challenge for me to go in and contribute. I had to go in there with humility and learn something that I didn't know much about. When Daddy died, the operations were messy and inefficient. And my brothers and I had to troubleshoot a lot to get things moving again. It felt good to get other people motivated and on board with change. I think Daddy would be proud of me."

Now, 63-year-old Blaise spends his days at Calandro's Supermarket #2, located at the corner of Perkins and Siegen Lane about seven miles southeast of the original Calandro's at 4142 Government. This is the new South Baton Rouge, where business is booming and the wealthy are moving. Nowadays, the customers love every bit of the Calandro's tradition in their hometown. They come to the store sometimes just to pick up some homemade Italian meatballs and say "hello" to Blaise and his brothers. Each day presents a new set of fixable challenges-from spilled milk on the floor to broken refrigeration equipment. Every now and then, Blaise might pull out an old memory or two to get him through the day. "Drink Dr. Pepper. The friendly pepper upper...

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