Back Row L-R: Angelo Bruno - Sam Vacarella - Randy Page
Front Row L-R: Lee Bruno - Karl Mollica - Ed Hyde
This page is dedicated to my friends and brothers who worked with me at the Bruno family grocery chain in Birmingham, Alabama. On December 11, 1991 while on Christmas visits to stores the six men pictured above were tragically killed in a crash of the corporate jet in Georgia. Killed along with them were John Tesney (Pilot), Rob Stamps (Co-Pilot), and Mary Faust (Advertising Executive). That day not only marked the end of the lives of the nine people on board the plane, but the end of the life of a company that had been a success story from it's beginning, and a standout in the Birmingham community.
From it's beginnings in Birmingham in 1935 Bruno's had grown to be one of the top grocery chains in the southeast and the nation. Starting with a small community store owned by Mr. Joe Bruno the company had grown into a major chain that achieved over $2.6 billion in sales in 1991 and owned 241 supermarkets in the southeast. After the disaster of 1991 the company was sold in 1995 to an investment firm in New York and was bankrupt by 1998. The company emerged from Chapter 11 only to be sold again in 2001, and now is on the market to buyers again. December 11, 1991 was a day that truly marked "The Death of an Angel".
I began my career with Bruno's as a sixteen year old High School student in July of 1967. I only intended to work in the grocery store until I graduated school, then move on to college and afterwards a "real job". However as life goes things don't always turn out the way we plan and it certainly did not in my case because I stayed with the company until September of 1999, a total of 32 years and three months. So I can speak from experience when I talk about the company and the Bruno family as they pertain to business.
The real success of the Bruno family was not only their ability to lead a great company and make a healthy bottom line every year, certainly they were masters of that. But the real success of the Bruno family is that they had a heart for the community they lived in and the large family of employees that worked for them. The Bruno's were men of family and they understood the value of that and appreciated a persons commitment to it. Actually, you could say that they expected a person to be committed to their family on a personal and professional level. That's what Bruno's was, it was one large family that worked hard and appreciated and developed respect for each other.
As I said they also had a great respect for the community and the city of Birmingham as a whole. There is no way to list all of the charitable things that the Bruno brothers did for the community. From building hospitals and schools to taking care of the needy, the Bruno's did not back up to the challenge of returning something to their community and city. The Bruno brothers, Joe, Sam, Lee, Angelo, and Anthony started with nothing and understood what it meant to be in need. When I speak of taking care of the needy, I didn't mean just on a large scale by donating money to some organization as a tax write off. I'm talking about a family in which the father was sick or unable to work for whatever reason would get groceries or other help without any strings attached. I have personally known this to happen many times.
This was not only the attitude of the Bruno family, but an attitude that they instilled in their employees as well. Everyone from the Chairman down to the clerks in the store had pride in the company and considered themselves part of a wonderful family. This was the attitude of the men that shaped the company, of the men that died on that terrible day, and of all of us that were left behind to continue.
We were not only family, we were Friends.
I first met Eddie Hyde in September of 1963 while we were students at Pitman Jr. High School in Hueytown, Alabama. Eddie and I developed a friendship that year that would last until his death. I can truly say that I have never had a closer friend than Eddie Hyde, someone with whom I shared so much of my life. Eddie and I started working at Bruno's around the same time in 1967 and you could say that we learned the "ropes" together. However our friendship went much deeper than just a relationship at work. We served in the Army at the same time, got married the same year to our beautiful wives, and experienced the happiness of our children being born together. Eddie was a funny man who could make a joke with anyone and could even get away with kidding Mr. Angelo when no one else could because of his genuine attitude and personality. Eddie was a hard working man who was very successful at Bruno's achieving the position of VP of Operations while still in his late 30's. He was also a man of deep religious
convictions who placed his Lord above and before everything else in his life. I guess you could say that he was just an all round good guy who was never too busy to help someone or just share some laughs. As the years have passed since Eddie was killed I have thought of my dear friend often and still find a tear in my eye when I remember all the great experiences that we had together. Eddie was 40 years old when he died and left a wife and two sons and many friends who loved him and cherish his memory.
Known as "The Vac", "The Duke", and "The Boss", Sam Vacarella was one of the most beloved members of the Bruno family. I first met Sam in 1969 after he graduated college before he took a position as grocery buyer for the company. It would be in that department that he would spend the rest of his career with Bruno's ascending to the position of Sr. V.P. of Buying and Merchandising. Sam was my supervisor from 1982 until his death in 1991 and I can say without a doubt that I would not be the man that I am today if it had not been for Sam Vacarella. Sam had a bark like a well trained police dog but the heart of a teddy bear. He cared about people, their families, and his beloved Bruno's. Sam was one of the most dedicated individuals that I have ever known as well as possessing the best buying mind in the business. No one, and I mean no one could get the better of "The Vac" in a business deal. However he was fair and equitable to everyone that he did business with and they knew it and respected him for it. I have always
thought that Sam would have eventually become President of Bruno's Inc. because of his strong record of successful business achievements and his ability to lead people. I still miss Sam today and I will always remember him as my friend before anything else. When Sam was killed he was 43 years old and he left a wife and two children as well as many friends.
I met Karl Mollica in 1975 while working at one of the company's stores in Forestdale, Alabama. Karl was produce manager at the time and we immediately established a friendship that would last the remainder of his life. When I traveled the southeast during the 1980's opening new stores Karl was traveling then as well and we often spent time together while working the stores. Karl was a hilariously funny man that you couldn't help but laugh with even when he was trying to be serious. Karl was an excellent Produce Specialist eventually becoming Director of Produce for Bruno's. His hobby was astronomy and he became quiet an expert with his photography of different star groups and constellations. But above all else Karl was just one of the guys and he never tried to be anything else. We helped each other so many times with last minute things before a store opened that we really came to depend on each other for support. The last time Karl and I spent time together was at a store opening in Tallahassee, Florida in October of 1991. I will
always remember Karl and the way he could make people forget their problems with his laughter. He was a friend and a brother that I could always depend on and who never let me down. Karl was only 37 when he was killed in December of 1991 and he left a wife and family along with a host of lifelong friends.
Mr. Angelo Bruno was by far the smartest businessman that I have ever known. He was one of the original founders of the Bruno company and the architect of the company's successful growth and prosperity during the 1970's and 1980's. Mr. Angelo was a man of integrity and character who was well respected within the business community. Mr. Angelo could compete with business giants and corporate CEO's and he could relate and talk to a part time utility clerk in one of the stores. He was a well rounded man of experience and ability who could foresee competitive challenges and develop strategies to address them, keeping our company strong. I had a wonderful relationship with Mr. Angelo and always looked forward to seeing him at stores and drawing from his exceptional knowledge and insight. He was the type man who was a strong leader but not one who would intimidate you and not listen to your ideas and thoughts. I do admit that at times I was apprehensive about him reviewing my work but only from the perspective that I wanted to get it
right and not because I was afraid of him. Mr. Angelo was a strong family man and he was committed to his family of employees as well. Everyone who worked for Bruno's knew that as long as the Bruno family was in control of the company they had a job to support their families. Mr. Angelo left a wife and family along with a vast number of grateful employees.
Mr. Lee Bruno was the older brother of Mr. Angelo and one of the company's founders. Mr. Lee was over the produce operation of the company and, along with his brothers, grew the company through the years to the market leader it became. Mr. Lee had the unique ability to get someone to do what he thought was the best by following up on what he said. If Mr. Lee said he was going to do something he did it and would not forget. I think I learned more about financial accountability from Mr. Lee than anyone else that I have ever known. I loved and respected Mr. Lee who became like a father of sorts to me because I knew that the things he did were for my good and the company's. I think the one thing that I will always remember about Mr. Lee is the clip-on ties that he wore. No matter how much money Mr. Lee had he always wore those clip-on ties because he wasn't trying to impress anyone. But Mr. Lee had a heart for people like the rest of the Bruno family and I always knew he was in my corner. He became a wonderful friend to me later in his
life and someone with whom I shared many pleasant conversations. Mr. Lee loved me and I knew it and he wanted me to be taught right because he knew I would need it later in life. I miss Mr. Lee and all the wonderful times we shared together. Mr. Lee left a wife and family along with numerous grateful employees that he helped raise.
Randy Page was the company's V.P. of Human Resources. Randy had been with Bruno's for over twenty years always serving in the Human Resources department in different capacities. Randy was a dedicated company employee who believed in fairness and people. He knew that a company was only as strong as their people and he strived to develop character in all the Bruno employees. Randy was a strong Christian and was not afraid to share his faith with someone. Randy served Bruno's through the growth years of the 70's and 80's and helped develop one of the strongest family of employees that any company possessed. He was always out in stores meeting people and encouraging their growth as employees. Randy left a wife and family behind as well as many happy co-workers.
The following is a poem that I wrote in 1999 when I left Bruno's after 32 years of employment. This poem was not only a tribute to the employees of the company but also to those who we lost on December 11, 1991.
I remember it was not so many years ago,
I looked down the hall and saw Mr. Lee, Joe, and Angelo.
I remember food shows in the spring of the year,
I wish Sam, Eddie, and Karl were still here.
I remember holiday meals we had downstairs,
I remember when we were not ashamed to say our prayers.
I remember clean up contest in the spring and fall,
I remember store managers, and when I knew them all.
I remember when we opened new stores but closed none,
I don't think I will ever forget what has been done.
I remember sad things I will never forget,
When I think about my friends Troup, LaRussa, and Arnett.
I remember how we thought we were all here to stay,
I remember one very sad December Wednesday.
I remember laughing till I thought I wouldn't stop,
I remember young Naro swinging that mop.
I remember when there was no struggle for power,
I remember sacking groceries for a dollar-forty an hour.
I remember when the company had purpose and cause,
I remember how funny Eddie was as Santa Claus.
I remember when seeing us on the evening news was good,
I remember we were helping someone in the neighborhood.
I remember a family that I could call my own,
One where love, caring, and understanding were shown.
And I remember friends that I have had from the start,
Friends I will always carry with me in my heart.
So this is not goodbye or even farewell,
But, I'll see you later, and I wish you all well.
God bless you, and thanks for thirty great years of memories.
© 1999 Walter E. Swain Sr.