Calais Hospital Groundbreaking 1953 Tommy back row third from the left
From the early 1930s until his death in a plane crash in 1973 Thomas DiCenzo was one of the most accomplished and successful businessmen in Calais history. Locally few called him Thomas, he was “Tommy DiCenzo” except within the family circle where he was Tom or to the nephews “Uncle Tom.” Only his wife Lydia called him Tommy.
The DiCenzo and Delmonaco family business, Thomas DiCenzo, Inc., was primarily known throughout the Northeast as road builders although they could handle any construction project. Tommy was brash, often reckless and had a quick temper, but he was generous with his many friends, loved by his family and unsparing in his commitment to the local community. He had a unique ability in the days before computers to sit in his living room with paper and pencil and cost out road and other construction projects, large and small, to produce competitive bids which were often well below those of his competitors which the company invariably completed on time and to everyone’s satisfaction. There was no company in the state with a better reputation for quality of work than Thomas DiCenzo, Inc.
He was born Tomasso Domenico DiCenzo on May 9, 1904, in Providence Rhode Island. We are grateful to Tommy’s nephew Anthony DiCenzo (Class of 1967) who now lives with his wife Pandora in the Boardman House on Lafayette Street for the family history:
My paternal grandfather, Antonio Pasqual DiCenzo, was born in Sulmona, Abruzzo, Italy in January 1877. In 1897 he and his future wife Enrichetta (Henrietta) Paolilli, born in Sulmona in 1880, immigrated to Providence, Rhode Island, USA. Antonio worked as a foreman on railroad construction projects and sent money home for his brothers to also come to America. Antonio and Henrietta married, settled in Providence, Rhode Island and subsequently had five children (Magdalena, Thomas, Henrietta [Etta], Theresa, and Anthony). Aunt Lena was the oldest child while my father Anthony Patrick DiCenzo was the youngest, born 24 October 1915. Grandfather Antonio died 9 March 1936 and Grandmother Henrietta died 21 June 1964.
Magdalena married Peter DelMonaco who partnered with Thomas to start a road construction business. The road construction business struggled with the local unions and the partners decided to move to Calais, Maine where they started plowing snow in the winters. This expanded when the contractor who won the bid to pave Maine Road Route 1 in Washington County defaulted and Uncle Tom picked up the job and was officially in the road construction business. Thomas DiCenzo would become the stable family patriarch and leader of the DiCenzo road construction business.
My father, Anthony Patrick DiCenzo, was the youngest child and he moved with his oldest brother to the wilderness of Calais, Maine in 1930 to plow snow in the winter and haul gravel in the summer. It was there that he met my mother Edwina Roberta Cox.
Some years ago, Peter Delmonaco, Jr. said in an interview with the Historical Society that the family felt they had to leave Providence if they were to make a living as building contractors because the unions controlled the city government and the unions were controlled by the mafia. This was confirmed by Tony DiCenzo:
During the depression there was no work in Providence, so Uncle Tom and Peter DelMonaco Sr. were working on the subways of New York. They didn’t like it there and they didn’t like the unions and mafia in R.I. either. McCormick Construction from Providence got a job building Rt.1 from Calais to Robbinston. They brought equipment to Calais on the railroad and hired mostly local workers. After a few weeks the local workers demanded shorter work weeks and more money. McCormick fired all of them and recruited workers from R.I. Uncle and Peter heard about that and moved to Calais with their equipment and saw a great opportunity to work on that job and many more roads in the future.
The first time Tommy is mentioned in the local papers is April 11, 1934, when the Bangor Daily reported that the Penobscot County Sheriff had arrested Pasco Valentine for the theft of two front wheels from a Mack Truck belonging to Thomas DiCenzo of Calais. The company “was in construction work in Carmel when the wheels were taken.” At the time Tommy was living in Calais at 48 Monroe Street and the company was building roads and doing other construction jobs Downeast or in the Bangor area. One contract the company didn’t get was the 1939 excavation and groundwork for Unobskey’s new A and P Supermarket on Main Street in Calais. This caused a good deal of friction between Tommy and Arthur Unobskey which boiled over the Calais City manager’s office in 1944. Tommy’s fiery temper got the best of him:
From the Advertiser:
Arraignment here yesterday in the Municipal Court before Judge John Dudley on a charge of vicious and aggravated assault upon the person of Arthur Unobskey, prominent Calais merchant, Thomas DiCenzo, widely known local contractor was found guilty by the court and fined $150 and costs. DiCenzo appealed the verdict and was released under bonds of $200 for appearance in the June term of the Superior Court.
The assault took place in Mayor Ernest Woodman’s office when DiCenzo punched Mr. Unobskey in the face. Unobskey, it is stated made no attempt to retaliate. It was with difficulty that Mayor Woodman prevented further assault.
Although an exchange of word just prior to the assault was probably the spark that touched off the explosion, the underlying cause extends much further back, in fact it goes back to the time the A and P Supermarket block was built several years ago when a DiCenzo bid for the excavation work was not accepted by the contractor who was constructing the buildings for the Unobskey firm. Further fuel to the feud was added some weeks ago at the annual Director’s meeting of the National Bank of Calais when Dicenzo was elected to the board of directors.
Harold Jewett, local attorney was the counsel for the defendant, William Blaisdell, prominent Ellsworth attorney, presents the Plaintiff’s case.
The animosity between Tommy and Arthur Unobskey may have lessened over the years as DiCenzo and the Unobskeys worked together on many community projects in later years. Tommy is seen in photos of the era standing beside Charlie Unobskey, Arthur’s brother.
Calais Academy Yearbook 1938
50 years later Lydia DiCenzo Front Row Third from the right
On August 12, 1945, Tommy married Lydia Coleman of the Bog Brook Colemans. She was born in St. Stephen on November 17, 1919, to Hartwell and Lydia (Wilson) Coleman. The Coleman family moved to Calais and operated a store and gas station at the corner of Route 1 and the Hardscrabble Road. After graduating from Calais High School in 1938 Lydia went to work at Newberry’s on Main Street, a very common practice for female graduates in those days. In addition to needing staff to wait on customers, the chain stores had luncheonettes and employed many young women to work the counter. No doubt Tommy, being single, ate many meals at these lunch counters. After several years at Newberry’s Lydia became the manager of Carroll Cut Rate, a position she held when she married Tommy.
During the Second World War the company worked on airports and seaports for the military. After the war the company began winning bids on sizeable road contracts throughout the state.
November 23, 1950 One of many bids DiCenzo, Inc won in the 50s
By 1950 Thomas DiCenzo, Inc. was the successful bidder on quarter-million-dollar road contracts. As we noted Tommy was adept at submitting bids which were only a few thousand dollars lower than the competition. By the mid 50’s DiCenzo’s was winning contracts worth nearly a million dollars, a very sizeable contract in those days. In 1960 Portland Press Herald published an expose on the scandalously low excise tax rates being assessed by towns on major contractors. The paper considered Thomas DiCenzo, Inc. a poster child for the practice. The company was described by the Press Herald as “One of Maine’s largest highway builders” and noted in bold print that “Calais seems to have a scale of its own-consisting of $20, $10 and $5 for most construction vehicles.” These rates had, according to the paper “little, if any relation to the rates that are set by state law.”
Newly Built Calais Hospital 1956
Laying the cornerstone 1954
Front from left: William Goode and Dr Dean Fisher with trowel. Back from left: Thomas Dicenzo, Harry Purton, George Irvine, Carrie Peterson, Henry Fales, Charles Unobskey,, Gordon Stillings, Mrs. Harold Murchie, Louis Eaton, Mrs Henry Eaton, Clifford Chase, Frank Fenderson, Nellie Murchie and, sitting, Father Louis Surrette.
There was a good reason why the town was willing to give DiCenzo’s a break on excise tax. The company by 1960 had become a large family business with Peter and Lena’s four boys being very much involved in the success of the company. The company had political pull locally and statewide and had many local employees. It was also very much involved in civic affairs. It has been said that the new Calais Hospital, built in 1954, would not have been possible without the assistance offered by Tommy and the company.
The former shoe factory was at the bottom of Barker Street.
Built in 1955 by Thomas Dicenzo, Inc Corner North and Union
The same is true of the Ware Knitters building on North Street, now Ace Hardware. In the 1950’s when the Ware Knitters building at the bottom of Barker Street was no longer suitable for the company, the Chamber of Commerce began working with local banks to arrange financing for a new facility. Problems arose with the project which were solved when Thomas Dicenzo, Inc. agreed to both finance and construct the building at the corner of North and Union Streets.
The Calais Athletic Complex on Calais Avenue
The Calais ball diamond and recreational facility is today appropriately named the Thomas DiCenzo Athletic Complex in recognition of the financial and in-kind contributions the company made to the facility. There were occasions over the years when the city found it impossible to clear the city streets of snow because the City’s equipment was simply not up to the job. DiCenzo’s heavy equipment and crews were always available to save the day. On one occasion the water supply of Calais and St Stephen was threatened by drought and blockages at Maxwell Crossing in St. Stephen. DiCenzo’s largest bulldozer was waved through Canadian Customs without any formalities and proceeded to the crossing where it managed to solve the problem. The company could always be relied upon in an emergency.
In its 1973 obituary of Tommy DiCenzo the Calais Advertiser wrote “He was a hard worker devoted to his business and a forthright man who made no bones about who his friends were and who his friends weren’t.” Jay Hinson, former owner of the Advertiser, explained how being Tommy’s friend could be an advantage. When Jay bought the Advertiser in the late 50’s he had to move from offices on North Street to the old train station on Hog Alley. It was a massive undertaking; the presses and other equipment were heavy and unwieldy. Tommy showed up with his equipment and crew and moved the lot in no time and didn’t charge Jay a penny.
On the other hand his early experiences in Providence resulted in his intense dislike of unions and the company was often in conflict with union contractors on construction projects. The construction of the Stud Mill in Woodland, although begun just after his death, was nearly shut down because DiCenzo’s was working on the site. Adopting Tommy’s lifelong position Harold Stone, DiCenzo’s supervisor on site, commented “What we pay or do is none of unionized workers business.” In fairness to Tommy and the company it must be said that Thomas DiCenzo, Inc. often paid well above minimum wage and had many loyal local employees.
Before readers rush off to draft a petition to confer sainthood on Tommy it must be admitted he was not without faults. We have noted his quick temper and propensity to hold a grudge. He was also extremely reckless and did not pay much attention to any rule which interfered with his brash style. His disregard of traffic rules was legendary. During the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s the newspapers throughout the state reported on Tommy’s many appearances in court for speeding, failure to yield right of way and just about every infraction in the book. He probably had a driving record in all 16 Maine counties. He drove like a maniac, wrecked cars and was lucky to have survived some crashes. Tony DiCenzo relates one such incident:
I think the best story about his driving was the time he wrecked his Cadillac on Rt. 9 and called George Tracy to pick it up and put it in his garage at home. When Lydia saw George arrive with the badly mangled car she was in a panic and asked what happened to her husband and where was he. George said that Tom had continued to Augusta to bid on a road job. He did get the job but returned home to spend a few days recovering. Dr. Sears treated him at home. I remember that he had many huge bruises and was very sore for days.
By the early 60’s Tommy had either grown wiser or lost his driver’s license because he bought a plane and got his pilot’s license. It was to prove a fatal decision. The pilot’s license was soon revoked ostensibly for taking off from Southern Maine with almost no fuel and being forced to make an emergency landing at the Brunswick Naval Air Station. It is likely the FAA’s rap sheet on Tommy contained other infractions. Tommy hired a series of pilots to fly his planes, he had several, but it is rumored he pressured them to fly when it wasn’t safe which is entirely consistent with the streak of recklessness which was so evident in his driving. One at least quit for this reason and opened a sandwich shop in town. In 1963 Tommy’s plane crashed on the way back from a World Series game in New York.
4 Escape Serious Injury In Downeast Plane Crash
Bangor Daily News October 5, 1963
Thomas DiCenzo owner of one of the state’s largest highway construction companies and two friends who had flown with him to New York to view Thursday’s World Series game walked away uninjured after DiCenzo’s twin-engine aircraft crashed here early Friday morning. Pilot of the plane Charles Cumiford 29 of Calais was taken to the Calais Regional Hospital to be treated for lacerations of the leg He was reported in good condition Friday evening.
Traveling with DiCenzo were Frank Wakefield of Baring and Dr Kenneth J Thomas of Calais. None reported any injuries stemming from the accident DiCenzo in fact was reported to have resumed his busy work schedule that same morning inspecting his company’s field offices in the central part of the state.
According to pilot Cumiford the party was enroute to Calais from New York with a stopover at Hartford Conn because of thunder showers after flying to New York Thursday to watch the second game of the World Series. DiCenzo’s Apache 235 apparently hit a tree while flying low in preparation for landing at the Calais Municipal airport causing it to crash. Cumiford said he was flying low over Meddybemps Lake at Alexander when he felt the plane strike the tree at about 12:30 am “I was circling the lake to get under a fog bank” Cumiford told The NEWS “The next thing I knew we were down on the ground in a field”.
The plane was flying north at the time of the crash. Federal Aviation Agency inspectors estimate that the plane skidded on its belly for about 50 feet across a rain-soaked pasture near Route 9 before ending up embedded in a row of small trees facing west. DiCenzo and his two passengers were dozing at the time of the crash. They left the plane without difficulty and walked to a nearby house to get help. Damage to the twin-engine craft valued at $50000 was extensive. Its cockpit area was gutted by flames shortly after the crash. No official estimate of damages has yet been revealed.
He was lucky in 1963 but this was not the case ten years later when flying in rain and heavy fog his plane disappeared when returning to Calais from Rhode Island.
Bangor Daily News: 24 June 1973
Executive’s plane overdue Downeast
State police late Friday night reported that a light plane owned by Calais contractor Thomas DiCenzo was several hours overdue in a scheduled landing at the Princeton Airport after a flight from North Central, R.I.
DiCenzo was reported aboard the aircraft which was reportedly piloted by James Poulin.
Law-enforcement authorities had checked out airstrips in Baring, Deblois, Lubec and Eastport by midnight, with no trace of the plane. State police said they had had no reports of a plane crash.
The Downeast area was shrouded in fog Friday night, and rain was falling. The Boston Flight Control Center said the plane had been cleared for an instrument landing at the Princeton Airport and was due to touch down at 9:03 p.m., according to a flight plan filed with that facility. They’ve heard him all over the place, from here to Trescott, a spokesman at the Washington County Sheriff’s Department said at midnight, indicating that the plane had been seeking a landing site.
Bernard Flood, a ham radio operator at Alexander which is located on the approach to the Princeton airstrip, said he heard the DiCenzo plane overhead about 9:50 p.m. Flood is familiar with the aircraft, often hearing it in its landing approach. About 10:30 p.m. the plane was heard over Lubec, and police said that local residents attempted to outline the airstrip there with automobile headlights but the plane did not attempt to land and appeared to be heading north toward Eastport. “The further north you go the worse the fog gets, the spokesman at the Sheriff’s Department reported. Flood said that when the DiCenzo plane left the Alexander area it appeared headed south toward Meddybemps.
State Trooper Dennis S. Grant of Milbridge was dispatched to the Deblois airstrip to determine if the plane had set down at that remote Washington County site. But he reported to the Orono barracks shortly before midnight that workmen in the area confirmed that no plane was there or had been there since 5 p.m.
Scene of the Plane Crash
The plane was found at 10:45 A.M. on Saturday morning in a wooded area in Indian Township. Both James Poulin and Tommy DiCenzo were dead.
The Bangor Daily reported on June 26th
Wreckage under scrutiny
The wreckage of the twin engine Piper Aztec which crashed Friday night claiming the lives of two Washington County residents was taken from Indian Township woodlands early Monday morning and transported to the Old Town Airport for further investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Carroll Philbrick of Cape Elizabeth, chief of FAAs flight standards branch in Portland, told the NEWS Monday that the National Transportation Safety Board. (NTSB) had released the airplane parts. FAA will seek to determine where the responsibility may rest in the plane crash which caused the death of Calais contractor Thomas D. DiCenzo, 69, and his pilot 40-year-old James Poulin of the Red Beach district of Calais. The plane crashed late Friday evening in thick fog while attempting to locate an airport in eastern Washington County.
Officials have not determined whether the pilot was attempting to land at DiCenzo’s Baring field or at the closer Princeton field. The wreckage was found at 10:45 a.m. Saturday about 70 feet from U.S., Route 1 in Indian Township, north of Princeton. Philbrick indicated that the VOR transmitter signal at Waite, Maine, was being checked for performance Monday, but he had not received a negative word from inspectors late Monday evening. He felt that the all directional transmitter was functioning properly but was waiting for confirmation.
Jim Sheppard of the FAAs Portland General Aviation district office was at the crash site Monday and observed the extrication of the wreckage from the mangled Woodland scene at 1 p.m. One of the DiCenzo’s flatbed tractor trailer rigs was used to transport the wreck to Old Town. A spokesman at the field said the vehicle and cargo arrived at about 4:30 p.m. for unloading. The inspection is expected to be made Tuesday. Representatives of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department maintained a constant guard on the plane and scene at Indian township over the weekend and Monday morning. Chief deputy sheriff William Upton headed the security watch.
Funeral services will be held for DiCenzo Tuesday at 2 p.m. in. the Immaculate Conception Church at Calais, and services will be held for Poulin Wednesday at 11 a.m. at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Fairfield.
From the Calais Advertiser
We were unable to locate the FAA’s investigation report. A pathologist at Eastern Maine Medical Center determined that James Poulin died as a result of the crash which ruled out the possibility of an acute medical problem as the accident’s cause. Poulin had moved to Calais from Fairfield to pilot Tommy’s plane. He and the family lived on the River Road on the right-hand side of the road going downriver just before Heslin’s. The family stayed in Calais after the accident. His widow Pat married Kenny Manship. Jerry Lapointe recalls having Poulin’s daughter Beatrice “Babe” Poulin in elementary school in the late 70’s.
Lydia DiCenzo survived Tommy by thirty-five years, dying on April 1st, 2008. She is buried in the Calais cemetery with Tommy.