Antonio Montenegrino was born in late 1922 to a poor peasant family in a small village in southern Italy. When he was three, Antonio’s father, Joseph, left to find work in Argentina to support the family. He never returned, and his mother, Angela, was forced to give the baby up to her brother, George Raso. But Raso starved and beat the boy, forcing him to work as an indentured servant at his flour mill. At 16, Antonio pulled a gun on his uncle. “He said, ‘You will not hit me anymore. I’m leaving,’ ” says Emanuel, his youngest son.
Antonio spent the next two years knocking on his neighbours’ doors with a spade on his shoulder, offering to till land in exchange for a bale of hay or a bucket of olives. At 18, he fell in love with Stella Mammoliti. But the Second World War had broken out, and Antonio was drafted. He was stationed at a small airport in a rural village, where he worked as a smoker, creating cover to foil strafing Allied planes. “He didn’t care about war,” says Emanuel. “He had this beautiful woman he was in love with, he was afraid of losing her, so he said to hell with this and on pain of death went AWOL.” Antonio married Stella, but was eventually dragged back by the military.
In 1945, after the war, the couple had their first son, Joseph. He died in infancy, but was followed by five more boys in the next 10 years.
One day, while walking home from church, Antonio heard women screaming and came upon a blaze at a neighbour’s house. Dousing a blanket in water and wrapping it around himself, Antonio ran inside and pulled out a badly burned man just as the building collapsed. Though he became a hero in his village, the family still lived in a dilapidated farmhouse with no electricity. Being uneducated and illiterate, Antonio couldn’t earn enough in buckets of olives and hay to feed the family. So, in 1959, they decided to move to Canada.
Like everything else in his life, it was a struggle. A local bureaucrat refused to put the necessary papers through because of Antonio’s poor war record. So he camped at the end of the man’s driveway for days, begging him to change his mind. The bureaucrat eventually relented, and the family immigrated to Ottawa.
Antonio couldn’t speak a word of English when he arrived, but thanks to his size and strength found a job hauling bricks. He’d work long into the evening, then eat with the family. At night, they’d watch Bonanza and The Ed Sullivan Show, which helped teach the children English. He was a kind father, but strict. “Just a look, that was all we needed,” says George, Antonio’s second eldest son.
Stella and Antonio thought education was everything, but had to ask Vincent, their oldest—and later George—to quit school and work to support the family. Money stayed tight until James, the next in line, learned to taper drywall and started a business with George. By 1973, they built the family a small bungalow in Nepean, Ont., and hired Antonio to oversee their construction sites. “He couldn’t read an invoice, but when he was on site you didn’t screw around,” says Emanuel, now a lawyer.
Still, Antonio missed tilling the earth. So he and Stella planted a huge vegetable garden in their yard. “He had everything, from garlic, to lettuce, to pumpkins,” says neighbour Keith Percival. “He worked in that garden almost every day from spring until harvest.”
Nothing stopped Antonio from tending to his property. Once, while repairing his lawn mower, the blades restarted, slicing off four fingers. He picked them up and walked over to a neighbour’s to ask for a lift to the hospital, where they were reattached. He was back in the garden within weeks.
Antonio smoked two packs of Export ‘A’ cigarettes a day, and though he quit when he was 50, he was diagnosed with lung cancer at 75. He was fit enough that doctors agreed to operate, removing one of his lungs. “It was almost like smoke wanted him,” says Emanuel. “Coughing it up in the war hiding planes, going into a burning fire, diagnosed with lung cancer. Smoke was going to get him.”
Seven years ago, Stella passed away, and their children wanted Antonio, then 81, to move into a senior’s home. He refused. “He doesn’t play Parcheesi,” says Emanuel. Antonio was asleep in the family home on Jan. 23, when a fire broke out. It took 60 firefighters to kill the flames, and although they tried for hours, the blaze was too intense for anyone to make it into the house to save him. Antonio was 88. Tom Henheffer