Frank Gandolfo went from the mafia to nuclear physics

Frank Gandolfo of Arroyo Grande is 96, a 1920s baby, and has had a long and colorful life. Although he left his home of New York City at the age of 16 after working for New York Mafia leader Charles “Lucky” Luciano.

“At 96, I can tell the stories now,” Gandolfo said. “They’re all dead, so no one can kill me. … I know things about Lucky Luciano that no one knows; he was like a second dad to me.”

Gandolfo, whose dad was Greek and his mother Sicilian, had been Luciano’s personal errand boy, but when Luciano got a tip that he was going to be arrested, he called Gandolfo and told him to leave.

“He called me and tells me ‘you’ve got to leave. Run. Run and hide,” Gandolfo said. “If he didn’t protect me, I’d be dead. So I put $5 in each shoe and took off.”

He headed south from the only home he’d ever known and worked as a bellboy and other odd jobs through the south. He said he was arrested multiple times for vagrant behavior.

“If you didn’t have money you went to jail,” Gandolfo said about the Depression Area and his multiple arrests.

In 1938, he ended up in Great Falls, Mont., and was sleeping in his car when he said police officers started beating him while he slept. He ended up in jail, and only got out of the jail sentence because of a large fire that needed bodies to fight it. After fighting the fire, he spent a year working in a Montana oil field until war broke out. He then joined the Army and went off to World War II, where four of his five brothers – John, Joseph, Dominick and Salvatore — also served, though none were in the same place.

“My brothers were all scattered around the world, they couldn’t keep [us] in the same place,” he said.

When he got back from the war he married Peg, an orphan from Michigan. Though he had been reunited with his family in New York, he chose to move to Michigan where his wife was from. ‘

“I hated New York,” Gandolfo said.

They lived there until her doctor suggested a warmer climate would be more beneficial for Peg, who was suffering from health issues.

So after burying their infant son, Gandolfo hitch-hiked in his Army uniform to Arizona where he got a job working for the railroad, working with men of varying nationalities loading and unloading the rail cars. Because he was saving money to bring Peg to Arizona, six of his coworkers put him up for two weeks apiece at no cost to him. He stayed with their families and ate their food.

After Peg arrived in Arizona, Gandolfo got a job with the Navy and started going to school at night.

“I flunked in high school,” he said.

He eventually got a college degree by going to school at night, while he worked during the day to support his family. During this time, he second son was born. Gandolfo said his son now lives in Sedona, Ariz., and has been very successful in life.

Gandolfo was then able to get a job with Rockwell International in the chemistry group.

“I became the custodian of all the nuclear fuel of all Rockwell International,” he said.

He worked his way up, starting in 1997 as a lab technician in the pyro chemical unit for North American Aviation, which was part of Rockwell International, ending his career as an industrial engineer. He retired when his health deteriorated from working with nuclear chemicals. He transferred to the nuclear physics grouping 1963, retiring from the field in 1984.

Though he’s had a sorted history and met so many important and famous people in his long life, he said he’s most proud of the people the he’s saved. One was a woman who was being mugged in the Arroyo Grande Village when 80-year-old Gandolfo walked by.

“I was 80 years old and I had just lost my wife,” Gandolfo said. “I fought off the mugger and he took off.”

That was December 2000.

“Walking by the card store in A.G. Village, I heard screaming and I see a tall blond man beating a very small woman … I rush to her aid, mugger runs off and foolishly I chase him,” Gandolfo said. “I return to find her in a heap. She is cut, bruised and bleeding, hugs me and doesn’t want me to go. She said he stole her wallet with money to go to the Philippines to visit.”

Earlier that year, in February 2000, he was waiting for the southbound 7 a.m. train in Grover Beach when he saw a white pickup drive up and ended up stranded with her back tire over the platform, right in the train’s path. Imagining the incoming train hitting that tire, spinning it skyward and taking out all the people in the vicinity.

“As calm as I could, I talked [the] woman to start [her] car and steer to the right,” Gandolfo said.  “A little girl helped me do this, but I never knew her name. … I told her to watch the wheel. Finally, she told me “OK, it’s clear.” Two minutes later the lights came on.”

He has been recognized the past two Fourth of July celebrations in Arroyo Grande on the bandstand for being one of five brothers in War World II at the same time. Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian has also recognized him for his heroism.

Gandolfo met his wife, Liisa, who was born and raised in Finland, on the Amtrak train in 2002. She got on the southbound train in San Luis Obispo and Gandolfo in Grover Beach.

“He got on the train and my heart just stopped,” Liisa said. “It was love at first sight.”

This was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Journal Plus.