Angelo Mucci had served in the Army Air Corps and was enrolled in college when he met Rose. “I thought, ‘You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to get a job and go to work and get married,” he told me. “We had a great big Italian wedding. It was just outstanding. You weren’t there.”
Mucci is a wisecracker. Maybe five foot two. Seriously Italian. He grew up alongside Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola in a tight-knit St. Louis neighborhood called the Hill. (“Today you can’t call it Dago Hill. They call it Italian Heights, OK?”) Nobody went hungry during the Depression, but the boy and his pals all worked part-time jobs, Mucci selling newspapers and working at a theatre. “It made me appreciate what I got today versus what I didn’t have then. And I met Rose in our neighborhood,” said Mucci, looking across the kitchen table into her calm hazel eyes. “Down the alley,” Rose confirmed.
Some people’s very first job steers them towards the career of a lifetime. For Mucci, it was the second one. He took a job with Magic Chef, the stove manufacturer, but went along with a friend for a look at a company called McDonnell that built airplanes. His dad, an engineer, told him, “They’ll build stoves forever.” When the young man was hired as a flight line mechanic getting planes ready for take-off, his dad said, “That’s the biggest mistake you ever made, buddy.” Six months later, Magic Chef moved out of town. The company went from McDonnell to McDonnell-Douglas to Boeing, and 60 years later Mucci was still on the payroll.
That kind of loyalty is now an artifact of a near-extinct corporate culture. The sinecure brings security and stability, but it can also restrict an employee to a very narrow set of opportunities. Mucci didn’t let that happen, and neither did Boeing. The 22-year-old didn’t know anything about mechanics, “but you got promoted based on your talent, based on your energy, and that’s what helped me along.” He spent six years on the flight line, but it was cold in the winter and hot in the summer, and Mucci got interested in avionics — the sophisticated electronics in all modern aircraft, satellites, and spacecraft. “To be honest, I don’t know anything more about avionics than I do about this refrigerator,” said Mucci, thumping the Frigidaire behind him. “But this engineer, his name was Bob Jergens, and he said, ‘I’II tell you what, Ange, you stick with me and you just listen, and I’ll make you the smartest engineer in avionics that you ever saw.’”
In the beginning his lack of a diploma bothered Mucci, but he soon realized that “it’s who you know, and not what you got. I mean, when I go to a meeting, nobody says, ‘Ange, have you got a degree?’ And in 60 years, I probably picked up enough data and knowledge that I could qualify for a PhD.” Ambition didn’t hurt, and neither did being Italian. He came up through the ranks with a senior engineer named John Capolupo, who told him, “Hang with me, Ange.” Capolupo went on to become president of Boeing, and Mucci became the company’s top avionics expert.
Mucci worked out of Boeing headquarters at St. Louis’ Lambert Airport until the day Capolupo asked him for a favor. “I need you to go to this company called Hughes Aircraft. They’re making this black box; they’re late, and it’s bad quality.” Different systems on an aircraft can be wired through as many as 50 black boxes, which determine whether the plane is safe to fly and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. “You go out there, and, see what the hell’s going on, and fix it.” Mucci put on a suit, borrowed a briefcase, and got on the first commercial flight of his life, to the Hughes headquarters in Carson City, California. When he ran into trouble, Capolupo told him, “’Ange, you’ve got to stand on your own two feet. If I’ve got to come out there, I don’t need you, you understand? Now fix the damn thing!’ That was it,” Mucci recounted.
Mucci spent the next 35 years “fixing the problems,” flying out of St. Louis out on Monday and back on Friday. “You name a place, you name a company. It could be Casio Electronics, it could be Northrup, it could be GE. When I go in, they say, ‘Well look who’s here.’ After all these years they know me.” On site, Mucci laid out three concerns. “First of all, quality. The box has got to work, okay? Secondly, you’ve got to make schedule. We build airplanes, so many a month. And the third thing is cost. I go in, and I say, ‘Jimmy, are those dates solid?’ Dead silence. ‘Well, Ange, you’ve got to understand, this is high risk—.” Mucci interrupts: “You’ve got to understand. I’ve got a B1 bomber worth $82 million out there. Now what I want to know is, am I going to get this part? You working seven days a week, 24 hours a day? Here’s the deal: you’ve got to convince me. Because if you guys ain’t cutting it, I’ve got no choice. I’m going to have to call the vice president of your company.”
Behind his back, Mucci’s co-workers called him The Terminator. He never took no for an answer, and he went up the ladder if he had to. [Hear him in action on the audio clip below.] But he did it “with a certain amount of charm, class and dignity,” not only because management was usually at fault but because he and his suppliers had to work together to solve the problem. He knew how to listen, “better now than when I was a youngster,” and he genuinely liked these guys. They got their licks in too. One evening he came out of New Jersey’s Teeterboro Airport to find his car missing. “Figuring I’m getting up in age, the guard says ‘Ange, you forgot where you parked it.’” Mucci knew better: the Honeywell crew, who just happened to be all Italian, had taken the keys off his desk and moved the car.
Humor was an essential weapon in Mucci’s arsenal, and his age wasn’t off limits. He recounted gleefully that when some of his suppliers saw him coming, “they say: ‘I thought you’d died.’” Nor was he shy about taking advantage of his 82 years, seeing as “When I do it it’s okay.” After a luncheon with Vicki Panhuise, the vice president of Honeywell Avionics (“this girl Vicky must have 2,000 people working for her), he said, “’You know what, Vicky? You really look good today.’ She goes, ‘Thanks.’ I go, ‘Because normally you don’t look that good.’” The veep didn’t skip a beat. “ ‘Oh Ange?’ I go, ‘Yes ma’am?’ She goes, ‘By the way, here’s your room key. I left it in my purse last night.’ I’ll tell you, everybody went, ‘Is that right?’”
Aviation engineering is no longer the all-white, all-male bastion it was when Mucci started out, and he welcomed the change: “If you’ve got the talent, I don’t care if you’re green, blue, pink or white.” He was open-minded, and one of the things he’d changed his mind about was following his mother-in-law’s example of never spending, always saving. Frugal by nature, Mucci had paid off the mortgage on his modest home, kept expenses low, and was known to sport a hat that said “Don’t forget my senior citizen discount.” But he listened to advice that he should spend more and enjoy the benefits during his lifetime. Mucci really got the message when his mother-in-law went into a nursing home “and Rose was writing checks for $5,000 a month. Because you know what? The lady next door to my mother-in-law, her nursing home didn’t cost a dime. She was on Medicare.” Now he and Rose hand their Social Security over to their son and daughter, for whom they’ve also bought houses, and they pay graduate school tuitions for two grandchildren. “There’s only two things I want to do,” he told me, beaming with pride. “Hear them say, ‘Dr. Adam Rammacher’, and see Hayley get her doctorate in physical therapy.”
Quite hard of hearing, Mucci was looking forward to getting his first hearing aids. His daughter Mary, who joined us for the interview, had threatened to stop calling him, and the woman who made his travel arrangements “was tired of hearing me go, ‘What?’ ‘Huh?’ So everybody is looking forward to Tuesday,” he acknowledged without a trace of sheepishness. Why the wait? “I couldn’t afford them.” At this, Mary burst out laughing. Mucci elaborated: “I wasn’t going to put out four grand for a little piece of electronics that cost about 150 bucks!” Instead he wrote a letter to his senator, Claire McCaskell, enclosing his discharge papers from WWII and the Korean War, and got them for free. “He kind of got our law changed,” Mary explained.
When asked why he stayed on the job, Mucci had a stock answer: “Let me tell you something: I just bought a new car.” Yeah, but the car was a secondhand Toyota. And while his income had long benefited the family — “Rose never had to worry about paying the gas bill, telephone bill, water bill, because the cash was always there” — almost all of his pay had gone into the bank for decades. He didn’t bother putting in for overtime. It wasn’t really about the money, and when pressed, Mucci admitted as much. A few weeks earlier he’d had surgery for a blocked intestine, and Mary pointed out that “when you couldn’t work you were having a fit. What did you tell every single nurse and doctor who came in? You told them where you worked, what you did, that you were paying for tuition.” Mucci squirmed, maintaining that he’d been consumed by the pain and indignities of his hospital stay. Turning to me, Mary said, “His work is his identity.”
Mucci’s energy and tenacity sure set an example for his grandchildren. When Adam didn’t get into medical school, instead of taking no or an answer he talked the dean into giving him a chance. Ten years earlier, Hayley received an A on a paper that read in part: “My grandpa Angelo teaches a very valuable lesson, and that lesson is: you’re never too old to do anything. Right now he is on an Alaskan cruise and is planning to climb a glacier . . . He still cuts his own lawn, which is big, and is always ready to take me places. . . . He says that if he is ever forced to retire he will have to get a couple of part time jobs.”
That time might not be too far off, although as the second audio clip below attests, conventional retired life held little appeal. “Between you and me, I’m getting tired,” said Mucci. “I enjoy the work. What’s killing me is the flying. I’ve been going to Albuquerque for almost 18 months, and it takes me all day. It’s atrocious, and I fly first class. Last night I was telling Rose ‘You know what? I’m reaching the point where it’s not so much fun anymore.” He’d never been willing to leave his roots or uproot his family, but had paid for it with an awful lot of time away from St. Louis. Mucci credited his success to “luck and the right connections” — and the fact that Rose “put up with a lot of bullshit from me.” I’d add diligence, humor, and optimism to the list. “If they hand me a layoff,” he declared with a grin, “I’m going to come back and go, ‘Okay Mary, let’s get on the internet and find something to do, babe.”