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Friday, Oct 31, 2014
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Tampa man shares a century-plus of history

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— Joe Guggino was 10 when he first saw a dead body.

It was 1920, and he was playing in the backyard of his family’s new home in Ybor City as he watched sanitation workers try to lift a heavy trash can. It tipped and a body spilled out.

The deceased was a victim of a Mafia hit.

When Guggino’s father returned from work that evening and learned of what his son saw, he took him to stay with relatives in West Tampa until he could sell the Ybor home. He was worried Guggino would be forced to testify even though he couldn’t identify the body.

“If he hadn’t done that I could have ended up like those four guys I saw hanging from a tree a few years later,” said Guggino. “They double-crossed the wrong guy.”

His dad’s quick thinking might have added years to Guggino’s life. Ninety-four of them, to be exact.

Born in 1910, Guggino will celebrate his 104th birthday on July 31.

Ask him about a historic event and he has a story to go with it: the weeping woman at the World War I victory parade on Franklin Street who lost her son in the war, his brother Gaspar throwing his World War II uniform in the trash and never speaking of what he saw in action, and watching the moon landing with son Jack and grandchildren.

Guggino still plays clarinet with a big band, the Tampa Community Band, which performs four free concerts a year at the Kate Jackson Community Center on South Rome Avenue.

Those wondering about the secret to Guggino’s long and healthy life may be disappointed to learn he believes it’s something completely out of anyone’s control.

“The secret to living long is staying alive,” he said. “And that takes luck.”

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He was lucky his father kept him off the witness stand. He was lucky his career on the railroad brought him deferrals from combat, which took so many of his friends’ lives. He was lucky this dangerous job didn’t kill him.

“A man I worked with on the railroad was cooked to death,” Guggino said. His co-worker, he explained, crawled into a train car that stored the wood used for the tracks after it had been treated with chemicals to preserve it. No one knew he was in there so the door was closed and locked.

Even Guggino’s healthy diet was a turn of good luck, said his son Jack Guggino.

“My father was forced into a 21st century diet from the day he was born because they didn’t have money,” Jack said. “All they could afford to eat was the fruits and vegetables they grew and the chickens they raised. That diet then just became normal for him.”

The oldest child of Sicilian immigrants, Guggino was born into a much different world.

Hitching posts for horses were more common than parking lots for cars.

Bridges were raised and lowered by an operator who struggled to turn a wooden wheel.

Tampa was the cigar capital of the world.

Outside the Mafia-shortened stint in Ybor City, he has spent his entire life in West Tampa. His father made his living there as a cigarmaker in the Santaella Cigar Factory.

“He also drank,” Guggino said. “I don’t know how good a cigarmaker he was, but I know he was a good drinker.”

His son sipped alcohol only once — a taste of whiskey celebrating the end of World War I. He was 7.

“I choked on it and said, ‘I never want that again.’ I never have.”

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Guggino grew up in a time of racial segregation when blacks were treated as lower-class citizens, but he said his father never allowed such thinking in his home. Guggino was taken to play with black children. A racial slur at home was met with a slap in the head.

The slap in the head helped him learn to play clarinet, too.

His uncle Nino Guggino taught at The Music Conservatory in Chicago and later moved to Tampa. When Guggino was 9, lessons with his uncle began.

“He was mean as hell,” Guggino said. “Every time I screwed up he’d slap me in the head as hard as he could.”

Within a year, Guggino was playing at public concerts and in parades.

As a boy, he earned money selling newspapers on corners, a dangerous job at the time. Children had bloody fights over who controlled neighborhoods. His newspaper-selling partner, Jimmy Longo, later made a career of controlling territories and went on to become Santo Trafficante’s bodyguard.

Guggino was offered the chance to work in Tampa’s illegal rackets but chose a career as a painter — first in homes and later for the railroad, painting signs, stations and company housing from Naples to Jacksonville.

He also a hard worker. In his 40 years with the railroad, he never took a sick day.

“That says a lot about him,” son Jack said. “It was a dangerous job.”

Guggino had a bolt of lightning strike just feet from where he was standing on the tracks.

“The guy next to me ruined his pants because he was so afraid,” Guggino said with a laugh.

He saw a man lose his leg under a passing train.

When he was 20, his father died and he had to support his mother and five siblings, the youngest of whom was only a few months old.

Guggino’s father came from money, but he had been disowned for marrying a woman from a family of farmers. They even refused to help his children after he died.

“My grandfather chose love over money,” Jack Guggino said. “About 15 years ago, we went to Sicily and met that family, and my sister read them the riot act for their treatment of my grandparents. She brought tears to their eyes and they apologized.”

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History repeated itself with Joe Guggino. Wife Jennie’s family was well-to-do and her parents thought she could do better than a blue-collar man.

But Jennie loved him, as do many in Tampa.

Guggino’s daughter Rosann Garcia said whenever someone realized who she was, she heard the same refrain: “Your father is the greatest guy I know.”

“It was a combination of his talent as musician, his positive attitude and that he would help anyone who asked,” she said.

Guggino’s wife died in 2001. His two children, four grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren visit him often to hear his stories.

“He has a second family, too,” Jack Guggino said. “The Community Band.”

He is the band’s oldest member and has the best rehearsal attendance, Guggino boasted.

“I’ll play until I’m tired, take a break and then play some more.”

When rehearsal is over, his home in West Tampa is often the gathering place for band members.

“My dad loves company,” his son said. “And he still has a ton of friends.”

There is no invitation list for his birthday party. The family will barbecue in the yard and guests can stop by throughout the day as they please. Anyone who can’t make it is invited to his 105th birthday party.

“When Joe turned 99 I stopped by to wish him happy birthday,” said family friend Joe Chillura, former Hillsborough County commissioner. “I jokingly told him that I expect to be invited to his 150th. He looked at me and said, ‘You’ll be too old to come.’ That’s Joe for you.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7606

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