When I collaborate with you on your project, I am quite conscious of the fact that you are entrusting a special part of yourself to me. Sitting down with a stranger to tell your life story will be challenging for both of us. Eventually, I will earn your trust.
The process begins where you want it to begin. Do you want the whole story of your life from your earliest memories to be recorded and shaped into a memoir? Or just highlights of special events? I take my cue from you.
With a recording device turned on, we’ll start talking. I’ll be asking you questions and guiding the course of the conversation toward the goal that you have stated. You will forget that the recorder is turned on. Our meetings will become warm, friendly events.
As we continue to work together, I will begin shaping your story as a narrative. You will have many opportunities to read and revise our manuscript.
Anything you tell me in confidence will remain confidential.
Once you are satisfied that we have recorded all the material you want documented and the manuscript is complete, you may wish to pursue publication. This is a completely different service that would require extended discussion.
But not all memoirs or biographies need to be published for public consumption. You may wish to leave this work for yourself of your family only. Still, I am happy to serve.
If the client is a company or an institution, then several sources may need to be interviewed. The process is similar as the one for the individual but requires more coordination and orchestration among the principals.
Barbara Snow Clark, daughter of Sidney Snow, founder of the precursor to the Oakland Zoo
John De Luca, former president of the California Wine Inst. for 28 years and vice mayor under San Francisco’s Joseph Alioto
Patrick Mahoney, corrections officer under federal penitentiary at Alcatraz from 1956 to 1963
In 1935, Dad founded the Alameda County Zoological Society as a nonprofit scientific and civic organization. The Board of Trustees of the society then accepted the mortgage. Very prominent people were on the board and were happy to accept the honor and of being part of the project. But none of them would invest or donate any money to it. So Dad had to find ways to generate income. It had to come from the admission gate and there had to be enough attractions to draw people in. The property that was at one time Durant Park and then Knowland Park was now the Oakland Zoo
Dad acquired our animals in diverse ways. Most came through donations from people who had unusual or exotic animals. He also acquired them from Goebel’s Lion Farm in Thousand Oaks before it became Jungleland. Dad and Louis Goebel were on friendly terms.
Dad had a very magnetic personality so the members of the zoological society rallied round him and came out every month to our events. Dad turned an old barn on the property into the members building where we’d have potlucks and dances.
Dad and I shared our love of animals. I loved handling them and being their friend. It was a pleasure introducing the animals to the zoo’s visitors. Besides, I loved people too. People would ask me questions and I’d tell them about animals.
I loved living at the zoo. It was my natural environment. Working side-by-side with my father cemented our relationship which became strong and close. I was always out with Dad. Whatever project that was going on I wanted to be right in the middle of it.
Dad would give me instructions and I would pick up all this knowledge every morning with him as we were out the animals.
What a place to grow up! When I was about eight, I was allowed to care for an animal for the first time, a tiny a guinea pig.
From that I quickly moved on to more interesting and exotic pets. I learned firsthand about a variety of animals’ habitats, eating habits, dispositions and more. My education was not formal. Every day I was out on the zoo grounds watching how lions lay about serenely, waiting and surveying the scene.
I also observed how monkeys were exuberant, easy to be riled so that they would urinate or defecate when they got excited. One of my favorite pets was a white Capuchin monkey I named Blanca. I put her on a chain and she kept me company by sitting on my shoulder. I soon learned a monkey’s disposition could be very excitable and could easily lead to a serious bodily function. I had to learn to always wear an old shirt with Blanca because when she got excited she would surely piddle on me. I became adept at discerning our animals’ different personalities and eventually I fell into the role of mothering them.
Taking a drive in a car was not a normal activity for monkey. Whenever I took Blanca for a ride in Dad’s truck, she would sit on my lap. As a car approached, she ducked! She thought that vehicle was surely going to hit us.
I also became enamored of horses when I was tiny. From the time I was three years old I used a kitchen broom to pretend I was riding a horse. I would always turn the broom stick upside down so that the business end became the horse’s head and I would jump on the stick for my ride. Movie and radio Westerns and Western stars only fueled my fantasy. Tom Mix, a cowboy star of that era, was a big favorite of mine.
Dad had built cages for the animals, and for the larger compound he constructed stronger structures for the lions. People began donating their animals to the zoo, sometimes even wild animals. They’d call him with a monkey or a snake and he’d say, “Sure, I’ll take that.” He also procured animals from other zoos that offered us specimens that they didn’t need or want. That’s how we accumulated quite a collection.
I became close to many of the monkeys, possums, lions and deer. I was fond of two king snakes and I used to love to wear them around my wrists and my arms as if they were bracelets. They were constrictors and the feel of them twisting up and down my arms and squeezing me was delicious. Mom, who was afraid they would strangle me, always cautioned, “Don’t put them around your neck!”
Mom was strict about the monkey too. Often when I appeared at the door with Blanca, she would say, “Don’t bring that monkey in the house.” This was sad for me because I was never a little girl to play with dolls, only warm fuzzy creatures. I liked to play cowboys with my little girl friend up the hill. She had a pony so that made it easy. But something interesting was always going on at the zoo that there was never a lack of wonderful things to do.
In the upper regions of the park were five or six picnic areas that dad called Scout Camp because it was initially used by Boy Scouts for camping. . He built tables and benches for four or five picnic groups in the area that had been a big tennis court much earlier. The largest picnic grounds were in the main concourse. He’d rent that area out to other organizations, clubs, or families as a way to raise money. He also added a gun target range and a golf driving range to bring in more visitors and money.
There was no swimming pool but there was a great pond that Talbot left. The fish pond was big enough to be considered a little lake but it couldn’t be used for swimming. It had a cement bottom but Dad did not fill it with water for fear of the risk to the public. Despite this, children used to love to run in and out of it.
Dad also gave lectures and showed movies and then he even introduced a steam engine for visitors to ride. A Mr. McDermott lent it to us; he said the engine had been a feature of the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Dad laid track all around the lower part of the park. It was a ten-minute ride. McDermott and Dad had some kind of reciprocal arrangement that allowed Mr. McDermott to retain ownership of the engine and live in the zoo park.
By the end of the day, however, the steam would start to weaken, and the old engine would lose momentum. Laboring up the hill around five o’clock or so, it could start to slide backwards. McDermott had no control over it even though he would brake. It was pretty scary and people often cried out, frightened that it was going to go off the track. Even I got worried a few times. But it never did. McDermott then had to fire up the boiler again. This operation took quite a while before the train would resume its trek uphill. The train really wasn’t all that practical. Dad knew that at some point he would have to change it to a gas-driven train.
I sold tickets for that train from the time I was a young child. I also scooped ice cream for our ice cream cone concession. I had the strongest right arm for a little kid because when you scoop you have to dig down fast and with strength because ice cream remains very hard when you are scooping it fast.
These additional attractions — the steam engine, the ice cream and the members building with all its activities — were all essential to our paying the mortgage and providing for our family. Many people at the time thought the Snows were wealthy people but we were not. We were frequently scrounging and I don’t know how my parents actually managed to make a go of it. But we never went without meals or clothes, and we had a nice home. To a little child, it seemed everything was fine. But my father had to orchestrate a big operation to keep us all going. He was very entrepreneurial and always thinking of new ways to make revenue. Fortunately, his personal charm and magnetism ensured a lot of support for his endeavors.
When I was about eleven or twelve, Grandmother Snow died. Since she had always been standoffish to me and mother, I didn’t really know her. In fact I found her rather scary. But when she was sick and on her deathbed, s she left me know how much should be granted her coldness. Maybe she really wanted to be close all her life but just didn’t know how.
“I wish things were different. I wish things were different,” She said to my mother and me.
I think she was really having remorse for the way she treated us. But I don’t know if she could have treated us any differently.
In later years we discovered my cousin Del had her journal that she kept from when she accompanied Grandpa Henry Snow to Africa. It was amazing all the things they did together. He was a strong man and she was a strong woman. They were very much in love and he wanted her with him.
Granddad and Dad left her in the camps while they went out hunting and exploring. There she was with this five or six year old child, Norma, taking care of the child in the wilderness. I found out more about Grandmother Snow through this memoir than I knew about before and wished I had known it while she was still alive. I certainly gained a lot of admiration for her.
Imagine a valley north of Taormina in the southeastern coast of Sicily. Today Sicily maintains the language and physical aspect of ancient peoples and times of Greece, Arabia and North Africa.
Through this fertile valley runs the Torrente Fiume di Nisi, a river named for an ancient Arab leader. That river joined the villages –Nizza and Ali Terme — of my two parents, Pietro De Luca and Francesca Di Bella. My father met his future wife through her brother and his friend, Giuseppe Di Bella.
Pietro De Luca was the only one in both villages who was well educated. In the 1920s, in the southern province of Catania, he studied to be an engineer. He was one of the very first to get involved with crystal radios. He was an early scholar of radar which turned out to be dramatically important for him later on.
Always generous and helpful, he fulfilled requests from friends and family to make crystal radios for them. When he was drafted into the military, papa’ moved to a military installation just north of Rome where his expertise was well used in the service of King Victor Emmanuel III’s communication network.
Pietro and Francesca had planned to marry in 1929 but family tragedy deferred their plans. They were finally married in June 1930.
When my mother was very young, she and her family relocated from Sicily to the East Coast of the United States twice. My mother was born in Philadelphia in 1907, and therefore an American citizen.
After she was born, the family returned to Sicily where my mother grew up. Again they revisited the US to reside in Waterbury, Connecticut between 1920 and 1924.
My grandfather Giuseppe Di Bella bought extensive lemon groves and from these crops he started a business manufacturing perfumes, lotions and soaps. The business did well and the family prospered. As a young girl she rode through their orchards on the back of her white steed Giorgio.
However in the 1930s, tragedy and disaster struck at the same time. With the Great Depression the family business collapsed and my mother’s childhood home was lost to foreclosure. In 1929, my grandfather died of a ruptured colon. Ruined, the family left all behind them and moved to an apartment in Messina.
Rather than have the grand wedding fest that they had dreamed of, my parents married the following year in a ceremony that took place in my mother’s childhood home. But by then it belonged to my father’s sister.
Concurrently, my father was becoming politically active. At the time Italy was a monarchy but socialist and communist factions were struggling for their voices. My father had always been a nationalist. A scholar of history, he wanted Italy to rise from the ignominy of World War I when Italy sustained grievous losses and humiliation.This nationalist fervor was very appealing to Italian youth at the time. Like many of his contemporaries, he dreamed of Italy recapturing the luster of ancient Rome.
This vision was also appealing to a newspaper editor named Benito Mussolini. However Mussolini took his vision of the Italy of the future in a direction more extreme than my father could tolerate.
After Mussolini and his forces marched on Rome in 1922 assuming powers that the King Victor Emmanuel III had ceded to him, the dictator enforced his authority by means of humiliation, threats, arson and murder. By this time, as the leader of the National Fascist Party, he had aligned himself with Adolf Hitler.
While the Italian dictator dealt harshly with adults, he saw youngsters as future fascists to be groomed. Schools were built but original thought discouraged. Free speech was verboten.
For the enlightened and openhearted Pietro De Luca, these were menacing signs for the future. He disparaged the notion of Italy becoming a corporate state, bending to the will of an autocrat.
Papa began submitting his opinions and essays to Italian dailies such as the Il Messaggero. Despite his relative obscurity and the use of a pen name, Rollindo della Villa Rosa, his true identity leaked out. On January 24, 1931, their first-born Giuseppe was born. Late that spring , someone close to my father advised him he should leave Italy at once.
He barely had a chance to bid my mother and their newborn son goodbye. Years later my relatives in Sicily showed me the piazza where my father knelt to receive his mother’s blessing before he flew. His departure shaped my family’s dynamic for decades after.
My mother was devastated. But they commenced a frequent and passionate correspondence until they were reunited almost two years later.
My father fled to Honduras where many Sicilians had found work on banana plantations. At this time many Italians were fleeing Italy, streaming into Central and Latin America. Harvesting bananas was not the work my father dreamed of but he was employed by a plantation manager, Giuseppe Buongiovanni, another Sicilian, who took him under his wing.
A number of Sicilians who came from the same villages my parents, Ali Terme and Nizza had also left their homes to find refuge in the plantations in Central America. They settled where they found folks of the same origin.
At a time of almost worldwide depression, the situation in Honduras, whose economy rested on the export of bananas, was dire. Papa’ wrote my mother the country was so poor that the police and the military were shoeless and walked barefoot. Meanwhile a revolution was raging in the country. Papa’ wrote of his fear that he could not survive long in that environment. But at least he was away from the Fascisti.
Through correspondence Pietro and Francesca devised a scheme based on these facts: Francesca was an American citizen and her brother and Sebastiano lived in the United States.
In 1932 she booked passage on a liner. Baby in arms, she was accompanied by her brother to the embarkation point. Her US passport showed her image holding the baby.
However when she reached the immigration officials they declared that her son was not a US citizen and could not accompany her. Since she was a woman without her husband and with no guarantee of employment, they deemed she could not take care of herself alone and would end up a burden to the state.
Here she faced an unbearable choice. Should she stay in Sicily with her baby and her relatives or leave them to reunite with her husband — an aspiration that was hardly assured?
My brave mother handed her baby to her brother Giuseppe. God knows what a scene that was.
Mamma always assumed her own little Giuseppe (whom they nicknamed Pippo) would be able to come to the United States in the foreseeable future. Back in Sicily, my mother’s mother and sister took over the nurturing of the infant Pippo. Every photo of my mother since that point betrays a profound sadness in her face.
Eighteen months later in early 1933, my father left Tegucigalpa and entered the United States through New Orleans. My parents’ reunion must have been a profound experience. I can only guess because they never discussed the pain of being separated and of leaving their son in Sicily. They always protected me and my sister Teresa from their distress.
It was too raw for my mother to explain what it was like for her to leave her baby boy behind to come to America. Or for my father to leave his young family behind and inadvertently cause the loss of their son. It was 17 years before Giuseppe joined them in New York.
My Wonderful, Dirty Job and How I Got It
The fearsome prison on Alcatraz Island was the subject of myths and movies. No escapee has been proven to have survived this high-security facility in its 30-year history as a US penitentiary. Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary had housed notorious criminals such as Alphonse Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and Robert “The Bird Man of Alcatraz” Stroud.
It also housed me and my family from 1956 to 1963.
The prison on an island was an opportunity of a lifetime — and it was actually safer than my previous jobs working in mines! As a correctional officer, I found at Alcatraz a stable and decent way to earn a living for my young wife and the family we wanted to have. My wife was thrilled with the opportunity to live in one of the most beautiful settings in the world at one quarter of the normal rental rates, in a thriving, fun-loving community where we created close friendships. Our children saw Alcatraz as an adventure-land where they could wander in the woods and tease sharks in the sea.
It was a great new opportunity and a chance to serve my country after coming back from the war in Korea. Of course I couldn’t know what lay ahead, and from the beginning there were challenges that every moment reminded of how different working on Alcatraz was from any other job I knew.
The first day I reported for work at the Alcatraz penitentiary in 1956, I was summoned to the isolation ward and instructed to usher a prisoner from his cell to the office of the assistant warden who would review his status.
Two other correctional officers were waiting for me at the isolation cell block. They led me to the heavy, double-door cell of the convict in question. I was to open the dark entrance and lead him out. I vaguely noticed the other officers stood back as I unlocked.
When I cracked the door a mite, the foulest stench hit me in the face. Releasing the entryway fully, I was aghast to see the prisoner had plastered himself, the walls and the floor in his feces. I reeled and staggered back. I was sure I would lose my breakfast, but I managed to control myself.
As the inmate stood slathered in his waste, a wry smile crept across his face — his mocking way of signaling what he thought of us.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that my colleagues knew precisely what they were doing when they summoned me there. They had seen this convict’s performance before and I was a newcomer. You might say that I was being initiated as if I had been in a new pledge in a fraternity.
I instructed the prisoner to come forward and head to the showers. I was relieved that he walked out of his cell voluntarily and without protest. Had he rebelled, I would have had to take hold of him in some way.
My colleagues pulled two convicts from other cells in isolation and ordered them to scour the stinking compartment. With buckets and a hose they mopped for several hours and were rewarded with a change of clothing.
The rebellious inmate was appearing that day before the associate warden to review a previous offense. The official was to determine how long the convict was going to spend in isolation before he could return to the prison’s general population. However, now he had another mischief to account for.
When the associate warden asked him why he fouled his cell, he explained that he thought his behavior would make him seem insane. And this would qualify him for the Springfield, Missouri federal penitentiary, which included a hospital for the mentally ill. There he thought he would get softer treatment.
In fact what he got was more time where he had been — in the dark section of isolation where incorrigible prisoners were kept without light, without furniture or the means to communicate.
Such was my outlandish first day on the job of what was to become a fulfilling and exciting career. I did not let that smelly experience scare me away. Being of Irish stock, I took it all in stride. I saw it as extreme and didn’t fear it would recur.
Who I Am and Where I Came from
I have a big heart but I’m also a tough hombre. I had to be, otherwise I couldn’t do the jobs I did. It’s the Irish in me, I guess.
You’re not getting hear a lot from me about feelings. I don’t go in for that touchy-feely stuff. Not my generation. But you will hear from me about honor, decency and doing the right thing by my fellow man. My compassion came out in the way I treated the prisoners.
I’m also not going to tell you how much I loved my Anna. We were together from high school and we adored each other. Enough said. She was a fine woman and she raised my wonderful kids. When she departed, she left a hole in my heart that still aches.
I was one of six brothers of the Mahoney family in Colorado. After performing my military service in the Korean War, I worked in law enforcement under my father, Thomas Mahoney, the sheriff at San Miguel County in Colorado.
I had met Anna in grammar school, the woman who became my wife and lifelong companion. We married on Valentine’s Day in 1954; after that, she joined me on the several mining jobs I took in Colorado and Death Valley in California where the pay was good. My beloved Anna was my helpmate through all my mining jobs, frequently working as payroll clerk for the same companies who employed me as a contract miner. But eventually we came to see that mining was just too dangerous. They were always situated in communities of gun-toters who were fearless and desperate men. Of course I was later to meet fearless and desperate men again in the US penitentiary on Alcatraz. But those blokes had no weapons and were confined in cells.
Eventually, I landed a job at Mare Island in the northern corner of San Francisco Bay, welding atomic submarines for the US Navy. It was a good place to acquire significant mechanical skills. Anna and I were living just across the channel in Vallejo. When I heard there were openings at the penitentiary on Alcatraz, I became keenly interested. This opportunity would make use of my experience working in law enforcement and my mechanical skills.
In less than a month after my initial interview, Warden Paul J. Madigan hired me and I started commuting from Vallejo. Soon an apartment was made available for us in the prison island’s Building 64, originally an army barracks built in the 1860s, and we moved in.
When I first applied for a job at Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary in 1956, the authorities told applicants that we would have to undergo physical endurance tests very much like a military boot camp.
But it wasn’t like that for me at all. While Madigan was interested in my previous experience in law enforcement, my mechanical skills were in such demand that I never had to do push-ups to prove myself as a correctional officer. The endurance tests were waived in my case though I had no doubt I could excel at them. I had been an amateur boxer in my youth and was quite robust.
My training for guard duty was not typical either. What should have taken 10 days took 18 months. And it’s not because I was a slow learner.
A new correctional officer was to spend one day in each of these locations: the control room, the clothing room, the cell house, kitchen, gun galleries, and a day in each of Towers 1, 2 and 3. He would also spend a day on the dock and learn how to X-ray all the food that came in by boat. Prison industries included the laundry and the shoe, tailor glove shops, the brush and furniture factories; each required a day of the newcomers’ initiation.
But I was constantly being taken off standard duties to fill in as a mechanic in some other part of the prison or its grounds. The prison already employed the mechanic Clifford Fish. But Fish had acrophobia and could not climb the towers or other high areas on the premises. I made a valuable backup to him since I wasn’t afflicted that way.
At Alcatraz, the Department of Justice housed the most hardened criminals, serving time for kidnap, murder, grand larceny and the like. However, the guards, their families and other support personnel lived on the island as a small well-connected community. We felt safe because we trusted the security apparatus and personnel on the island. We were those same people.
Anna settled into the prison support community contentedly and raised our three sons who were born during my seven years there. She commuted every day to her job at Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company in San Francisco.
So despite what others might think was a grim job, for these many benefits and the security of my position I was happy in my work. Furthermore I was convinced that I was giving service to the community.
I couldn’t wait to come home at night and tell Anna what had happened that day. There was always a good story to relate and she was always eager to hear it.
Your Company Has Had a Life Too
Your company is invested with your life’s blood — your time, your energy, your intelligence and your associations. As time passes, the narrative of how you managed that company or how your predecessors did is apt to be lost or forgotten.
It just happens. The Bank of America, Wells Fargo and other huge institutions keep archives. Most companies don’t.
It would be my honor to chronicle the history of your company, whether yours is a family-owned company, a publicly traded entity, or a nonprofit that you direct.
Perhaps you want to recount how you started your business, its place in your industry, your innovations in your field, copyrights and patents.
Firms or nonprofits with a long tradition have always intrigued me. I want to know what the dynamic was that has kept that organization vital, creative and productive over decades.
Who were the personalities? What were the strategies and the challenges ?
I have been a business journalist since the late 1970s. I have written about hundreds of companies and interviewed innumerable chief executives, executive directors and other corporate officers.
It has been my privilege to interview executives when their companies were flush and when they were struggling. Domestic and overseas as well. I have investigated and written about startups, longtime institutions, the street corner mom-and-pop and, inevitably, failures. Many nonprofits have also been the subject of my research.
One of my proudest achievements has been the history of America’s longest surviving Italian restaurant — the Fior d’Italia in San Francisco. The restaurant commissioned me to write its history so that the many legends, anecdotes and yarns that were spun since the restaurant’s founding in 1886 would not be lost.
The book, The Fabulous Fior — Over 100 Years in an Italian Kitchen, examines the financial, historical and human forces that shaped North Beach institution. Available on Amazon.com.
Its second edition includes 3 new chapters including the history of the San Remo Hotel, The Fabulous Fior — Over 125 Years in an Italian Kitchen, is an e-book available on Kindle or Nook.
Maybe you are an entrepreneur/sole proprietor?
Envision a book about your company, one with your name on it.
Consider that you have worked all these years developing and marketing your product or service from scratch. But maybe you feel your reputation does not yet match the quality of your service. Even if you have a website and you blog, you know from your own revenues whether you need more public appreciation of your service or product.
Meanwhile, your more muscular competitors have any number of brochures, white papers, lavishly produced annual reports, press releases, and multiple pages on their websites. And more staff to sell.
The next time you meet a prospect, instead of just handing them card you offer them a book — a book with your name on it. There are few things that can render you a standout performer in the public’s eyes more than a book with your name on it.
Whether it is a traditional book in paper or a more economical e-book, this document will present you as a true expert and a credible competitor in a crowded market. And it can be used as a springboard for more attention in the press.
As a ghostwriter, I write for you under your name. The ideas and content are all yours. As a business journalist for over 30 years, I can help you do that. And I have done it.
Let’s envision what kind of a book it would be.
It could be your life story through the filter of your industry expertise. For instance: how you came to this industry and excelled in it or how you have improved the industry; and the innovations you have created and introduced.
Or maybe you would prefer to be more customer focused:
you explain to the consumer how to make a good choice of supplier. We can present your view of how the industry works behind the scenes, in a way the customer could never perceive.
I can help you get it published in paper or help you create an e-book that would appear on your website and be downloadable on an e-reader.
Or? You imagine and I will help you realize your vision.