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Elio Fontana


A life journey written in stone


Elio Fontana loves his alma mater Jefferson High School . "My days there were

among the happiest of my life," said the 1938 graduate. "That's where I really

came into my own." Back then Jefferson had a student body of 500 which was

comprised of kids from Colma, Daly City, Brisbane and the area that is now

Pacifica. Among his high school credentials, Fontana served as sophomore

president, junior president and student body president. "Even though it was

the Depression and times were hard, I always had money in my pocket,"

Fontana said. "I got work as an accordion player and I also worked at my

father's shop in Colma." That "shop," V. Fontana & Co., with its main office on El Camino and its manufacturing plant at the corner of Clark and F Streets, has been in the business of designing and producing granite and marble products since 1921. It was founded by Elio's father, Valerio Fontana. It was subsequently run by Elio and is now run by Elio's son, Mark Fontana. The Fontana's family roots are from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and the business of stone cutting goes back many generations. "My father was born in 1887 and he was introduced to stone cutting as a matter-of-course," Fontana said. "He left Italy when he was a teen and without much money, he headed off to Canada to do granite work." "He was an A1 stone cutter and in those days, that was like being a sculptor," Fontana said of the man whose long résumé of sculpturing work includes San Francisco 's City Hall and Public Library, Canada's Japanese Canadian World War I Memorial in Stanley Park, Vancouver, and many monuments throughout Colma's 17 cemeteries. "Back then stone cutting was much more prevalent than carpentry and years later, I used to go up to Vancouver and Victoria, and visit some of the many works my father had done when he was a young man." After San Francisco's devastating 1906 earthquake, Valerio Fontana went to work for the McGilvrayRaymond Granite Company located in Raymond , California — in the Sierra foothills. The company, already well-known in San Francisco, had picked up significant work because of the quake. "They used to have a spur track in Raymond where the company could transport that Sierra granite to San Francisco." Valerio stayed in Raymond, until a strike sent him back to Canada for work. There he met his bride-to-be, Annunziatina. The couple married and Elio was born in Canada, February of 1919. Valerio, who had always wanted to come back to the Bay Area, headed down to San Francisco to find work. His wife and 2-year-old son joined him in California, after Valerio borrowed the money (from a dear friend), and purchased an old building close to the top entrance to Colma's Italian Cemetery. V. Fontana & Co. worked out of this site until the new shop was built in 1950. Raised in Colma with his younger sister Gloria, Elio went to Jefferson Elementary. He said Colma and Daly City looked very different then — dairy farms everywhere, produce farms and flower growers. "When I was in grammar school, I started learning the family business. I also started playing the accordion. I must have been 7 or 8," Fontana said. "My uncle was the 'accordion teacher' and he needed a little guy to get his business started. And I was that little guy!" Fontana started out on classical music but by the time he started Jefferson High School , swing bandleader Benny Goodman had come into the picture and things changed. "His music was different, really great, and I started playing swing music on the accordion," Fontana said. "In high school, I knew everybody because I played all the dances. What a time I had!" When Fontana headed off to the College of San Mateo, he started working part-time in his father's shop. But his band used to play all over San Francisco. Plus there were accordion contests in the City — at places like the Lyceum Theatre and the El Capitan Theatre, both on Mission. In the granite business, Fontana did cutting but he said his work was nothing like his dad's. However, Elio found his specialties were doing ornamentation, with an air tool machine, as well as drawing. "I did a lot of drawing then transported it to the monument," Fontana said. "I was good at it and I liked it. Every once in a while, I still do it." Despite school, work at "the shop" and accordion gigs, Fontana said that, "Like everyone else, I knew that the 'War' was going to pop." Originally given a classification that kept him out of the Army, once the War broke out, Fontana was reclassified as G2, tactical intelligence. "I saw in the paper that there was an opening at the Presidio for a cartographer (map maker)," Fontana said. "I applied for the position. I'll never forget one of the officers said to me, 'You can draw maps?' and I said, 'I'm your man!' I had never drawn a map in my life!" But Fontana went to the library and found out everything he could on map drawing and really took to the job. The first map he created was a topography map, based on aerial photographs taken of the Isle of Kiska, in the Aleutian Islands. Originally assigned to the 4th Army, under the command of General DeWitt (the man behind the interment of JapaneseAmericans during the War), Fontana reported to the 9th U.S. Army, after the 4th Army disbanded following the Japanese retreat from the Aleutian Islands. "I was sent to Fort Sam Houston in Texas and then overseas where we took over Patton's unit," Fontana said, noting that on the boat ride over, the Queen Elizabeth, Glen Miller's Band was on board, minus Glenn Miller, and Fontana was given an accordion to play. Fontana's unit landed on Utah Beach about 7 days after the invasion. When the War ended, Fontana was sent to Berlin as an artist, to help in the rebuilding effort of the severely bombed city. He was home by Thanksgiving. "When I was in Germany, I wrote my father a letter and said, 'I look forward to the day, when I can go and work with my father in business.' My father saved that letter. He said that was the first time I ever mentioned that that was what I wanted to do. Funny, I thought that was understood!" By this time, Elio was married to Terry. (Their children are Mark and Valerie.) "I remember when a friend of mine from school, Arnold, bought the fourth home in Westlake. He paid a little over $13,000. I told him, you must have rocks in your head to spend that much money for a house. I ultimately bought a house in Daly City, Garden Village, for $27,000. And that was a lot of money!" Fontana would go on to serve on the Jefferson Union High School District Board for 19 years, including five terms as board president. "I was on the Board when Westmoor High School was established, followed by Terra Nova High School and Oceana High School," Fontana said. "I was also on the Board when it was decided that the old Jefferson High School building should be knocked down and replaced with a new building (1963). Four School Board members voted to tear it down, and only one, me, voted to leave it!" Fontana also served on the San Mateo Community College, Board of Trustees, the San Mateo County Board of Education and the San Mateo County Arts Council Board of Directors. He was appointed by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors to the San Mateo County Mental Health Advisory Board. He also served on the Seton Hospital Advisory Board and was a member of the San Mateo County Grand Jury. A member of Musicians Union Local 36, past president of the Daly City Lions Club, the Daly-City Colma Chamber of Commerce and on the Olympic Club, Board of Governors — Fontana said he doesn't know why he didn't go into politics. But then again, he loved his granite and marble business, often working 7 days a week. "You create something and it is there for all time — and you made it," Fontana said. "And I take so much pride in my work, as did my father, and as does my son Mark." Among those many works are a number of renowned Bay Area granite landmarks, including those commemorating the Golden Gate Bridge's 50th Anniversary, the Portola Discovery Site of San Francisco Bay, and the UC Berkeley Veterans Memorial to name just a few. (Visit for additional works and historical information.) Married to his second wife, Louise, since 1975, Fontana is thrilled that Jefferson High School named their football field, the Elio A. Fontana Football Field. "I love Jefferson High School," Fontana reiterated. "You know, sometimes you think with all you read, or see on television, that the world is loaded with a bunch of crumb-bums. But I have known the nicest people." By Jean Bartlett Pacifica Tribune Correspondent Posted:12/27/2011

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