In Memoriam: A. Francis Politi, 95, global magnate, faithful friend to Norwich

Norwich University has learned of the death of A. Francis Politi, a longtime friend and supporter of the school. Mr. Politi is featured in the spring issue of the Norwich Record, to be released later this month. An excerpt of that article appears here.

A. Francis Politi is part of what has been called, "The Greatest Generation", a group of American men and women whose sacrifices determined the course of history, and whose determination built this country as we know it. A first generation American, Politi came of age during the Great Depression, served his country during World War II, and, like many of his countrymen, was transformed by extraordinary circumstances. How this small boy from a small town in a small state became a powerful international magnate is a remarkable success story.

Born on St. Patrick's Day in 1911 to a Sicilian father and an Italian mother, Achilio Francesco Politi spent his formative years in Northfield, Vermont, where his father owned and operated the town's largest granite business. The middle of the three Politi sons, he attended high school locally for two years before tragedy struck the family business. The Politi Granite Shed, located in the center of the village just west of the railroad depot, was completely destroyed by fire. Having lost everything, Francis's family returned to Peekskill, N.Y., where relatives still remained.

Inheriting his father's Old World work ethic and his mother's social graces, young Francis was destined to go far. As a young man he displayed an entrepreneurial spirit, and became the first member of the family to attend college, earning a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration from Eastman College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He furthered his education in New York City, first at the Columbia School of Architecture for two years, and later at the Mechanics Institute. He then returned to Peekskill where he began his first official business enterprise, a monument shed and store. When World War II broke out in Europe, however, Francis responded a greater calling. Putting his fledgling business venture aside, he headed for the nation's capital in search of broader horizons.

He found them in Washington. Upon his arrival, Mr. Politi accepted a position with the New Deal office of Price Stabilization, becoming one of the first government employees to work on the War Productions Board, regulating business production in support of the war effort. He later moved to the State Department, where he served on the Board of Economic Warfare. Traveling to Nazi-friendly countries such as Argentina and Brazil, he bought up vast stores of commodities like sugar and beef and sent them to Russia, effectively channeling them away from the Axis powers. Later, when the United States was desperate for elemental silver for the manufacture of electronics, he traveled to Mexico, bought up pesos, and sent railroad cars full of the silver coins back across the border, which nearly caused the Mexican economy to collapse for lack of hard currency.

After the war, Mr. Politi put his worldly connections to expert use. As the number two executive at Carborundum International, he established manufacturing operations in more than a dozen cities worldwide. Able to conduct business in English, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, German and French, his negotiations took him to such diverse regions as Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. Operating from his main headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Mr. Politi entertained some of the richest people in the world, closing multi-million dollar deals with a handshake. Before retiring to Roxbury, Vt., he maintained residences in Switzerland, Upstate New York, Wisconsin, New York City, and elsewhere, and his resume included CEO positions three international corporations.

Despite his superstar status in an increasingly global economy, Mr. Politi always considered the tiny village of Northfield his true "home," and returned every summer to his family's camp in Roxbury. He never married, but had legions of friends the world over, and in retirement, he derived great pleasure from gathering all his Norwich and Northfield friends together for an annual bocce ball tournament and barbeque in his back yard. Throughout his long life, Mr. Politi maintained deep and loyal ties to both the Northfield community and the university that makes its home there.

In the mid 1980s, Mr. Politi's longtime informal association with Norwich became formalized when he helped establish the Brigadier General Elizabeth P. Hoisington Award. Presented annually to the top senior female cadet seeking a commission, it is Norwich's first female leadership award. Elected to the Board of Fellows in 1987, he served on the Peace Corps committee, and in 1996, in recognition of his personal success and contributions to international business, the University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Business Administration.

In 2004, Mr. Politi returned the honor by establishing The Politi International Fund, a vital resource aimed at offering Norwich students an educational experience that is, "American in character yet global in perspective." The fund will have far-reaching effects both here and abroad, as graduates from all disciplines take their intercultural lessons with them to the far corners of the globe. Mr. Politi felt strongly that there was no substitute for experiencing other cultures first hand. Having spent much of his life traveling to the far reaches of the globe, his legacy will be to pass that unique opportunity on to others.


Two who received the gift of global perspective

 

Zacharia Eastman

Norwich senior Zacharia Eastman, a civilian student, recently traveled to East Africa. He was awarded $1,000 from the Politi Fund, which helped offset the cost of his involvement in last year's NU Visions Abroad trip to the Tanzanian village of Pommern. Eastman, an English major who wants to become a teacher after he graduates, studied education at a small school in the isolated village and helped build a new library. "The trip gave me a unique insight into the culture and academic issues of a developing country," Eastman said. "I found that many of the issues faced in these schools are the same ones we face in our own schools. I got to observe how people from another culture deal with classroom discipline, what they did to retain skilled teachers and how they interest their youth in learning. The experience helped me better understand the needs of multi-cultural classrooms. I have a better understanding of students from other cultures," he said.

Eastman has some warm memories from the trip. "At the end of the day, when we were hot, tired and looking forward to getting back to the mission house, a group of about 20 little kids would come running over to play with us. It was invigorating and energizing," he said.

Not all memories were happy ones; in particular, Eastman recalled the bleak outlook most students had with regard to their futures. "One of the things that really struck me was how trapped they seemed to feel," he said. "One of the students told me that he'd like to see America one day. I remember telling him, 'you should do it, you should find a way to make that happen'. I thought there must be some way for him to do that. And he shook his head and said, 'maybe for you'."

When he returned to the U.S., Eastman got a letter from Global Volunteers, a non-governmental organization that Norwich partners with to coordinate volunteer service trips around the world. The letter thanked him for his work in Pommern and told him that his Tanzanian students had named him, "Mwalimu wetu kutoka America", which means our American Teacher. Holding the letter Eastman said, "That made me feel like maybe I did leave some kind of a mark there."

Michelle Hamilton

Michelle Hamilton, a senior in the Corps of Cadets, spent a semester immersed in the language and culture of Santiago, Chile last year. The Politi International Fund paid her airfare, and through the University Studies Abroad Consortium, Hamilton completed 18 credits at the Universidad Andrés Bello.

Except for a handful of American college students attending other classes there, the International Studies major was completely on her own, totally immersed in the language and culture. Hamilton studied Spanish and took classes in Latin American Literature and Pre-Columbian Art, among others.

"During my first 2 weeks there I didn't talk much," she remembers. "I just watched how people spoke and interacted with each other. These people are very calm and relaxed. They were very nice, not stereotypical or judgmental."

She learned firsthand from the people of the region by living with Patricio and Maria Victoria Osario. "They were my Chilean parents," Hamilton said. "When they went on an outing, they always brought me. We had a family dinner every night and breakfast every morning. There was a farmer's market close to where they lived, so I went with them and helped get the groceries from the market."   

"I got to know a lot about Chilean culture," Hamilton went on. "Most of my Spanish vocabulary is now based on the Chilean vocabulary. Santiago reminded me of home. I felt safe there. A lot of stereotypes were erased."

Remembering the sights and sounds of Chile, Hamilton described the country. "The Northern part of Chile is desert, very dry and the Southern region is cold, with icebergs floating off the coast. It's a country of extremes and I lived right in the center," Hamilton said.

For anyone considering a trip to Chile, Hamilton offers two "must see" locations: Valparaíso and the Andes Mountains. Chile's sixth largest city in terms of population, Valparaíso once served as a major stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans before the Panama Canal was built. "It's South America's version of San Francisco," Hamilton said, "It's colorful, hilly and beautiful."

As for the Andes Mountains, Hamilton called them, "one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen." The Andes are a continuous chain along the western coast of South America and to the north the chain continues in small ridges and isolated hills along the Pacific Ocean. The chain extends over seven countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. "I think this part of the world is forgotten by most people," Hamilton said. "I'm glad I got a chance to study in Chile. The experience changed me, it was a maturing experience. I hope more students take advantage of this opportunity."