by Bill Hurschmann
You would think that after more than a century in the granite and marble tombstone businesses, the Fontana family might be growing a bit weary of it.
However, quite the opposite is the case. Thirty-five-year-old Mark Fontana, following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather and great-great-geat-grandfather, is running the Colma monument company today with the enthusiasm one would associate with a fledgling new business.
And part of the reason is that V. Fontana and Co., a Colma tradition since before the Great Depression, is entering new fields and breaking new ground in that very same granite and marble business that has been traditionally reserved to memorialize the dead.
"Less than 50 percent of our business today is monuments," says Fontana, a former Colma policeman who gave up the uniform, badge and gun in 1979 when his father, Elio Fontana, now 69, announced he wanted to go into semi-retirement, giving him more time to devote to such outside interests as accordian-playing.
"IN THE LAST COUPLE of years, we've gone more commercial. Everything in construction that is made out of granite, we'll do it," says Fontana, whose uniform today is of the big Ben variety that doesn't belie his six-day, 12-hours-a-day work week. He's not your three-piece-suit kinda guy.
As a youngster, Fontana says he was never pushed into the monument business, although he learned it from the ground up, sweeping granite and marble dust from warehouses as a teen-ager or carting 100-pound sacks of cement and sand from one end of the plant to the other.
And Fontana says he isn't pushing his son, David, 8-1/2, to become the seventh generation to follow in great-great-great-granddad's footsteps that began in Italy's Amilia province, the home of much of the world's fine marble.
"I'm doing like my dad did with me," he says. "I bring him down (to the shop), and if he's interested, fine. He never pushed me, and that's probably why I'm in the business today."
Although monuments are the bread and butter of the granite and marble business, that's truer for the other monument companies in Colma than it is for Fontana's, he says. V. Fontana and Co., he says, is using the 100 tons of granite it imports each year to build more than tombstones.
FOR EXAMPLE, THE two veteran craftsmen in Fontana's shop at Clark Avenue and F Street near the business's original location, Pete Masnada, a San Franciscan who has logged 35 years with Fontana, and Ray Ward of San Mateo, a 26-year employee, are working on a variety of projects, including the intricate, hand-done lettering and artwork for tombstones.
There's a pair of 1,400-pound chairs they're crafting out of Tennessee marble to be placed at the Greek Amphiteater at the University of California at Berkeley, a gift from a pre-World War II class to honor its war veterans.
There's granite surface plates with exact measurements and perfectly-level surfaces that will got to the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory for use in some of the experiments there.
There's dining room and conference room tables and granite-top kitchen counters, one of the latest rages to take advantage of the impenetrable surface granite affords.
"You put granite kitchen counter in a home and it will outlive the house," Fontana says unhesitatingly. Thouse countertops cost anywhere from $2000 to $14,000.
There are awards plaques in every shape and form, from a 20-foot-long granite plaque that will honor the donor of a University of California at San Francisco building to a Vietnam War memorial in Ogden, Utah. There's a 6-ton granite monolith dedicated to Golden Gate Bridge engineer Joseph Strauss and funder A.P. Giannini, a monument at the Portola Discovery Sitein Pacifica's hills that is multi-sided with plaques describing the views from each spot around the monument.
THERE'S A MONUMENT and plaque dedicated by the First Marine Division for a month-long battle in 1944 on the islands of Peleliu and Ngesebus in the South Seas.
And there's the works of V. Fontana and Co. at Seton Medical Center in Daly city, at the San Francisco Opera
Plaza, even at Daly City City Hall, where Fontana constructed the time capsule the city buried in 1986 as part of its celebration of its 75th year of cityhood.
And there's statuary work, too, like a discuss thrower for the Stanford Univeristy campus and a statue of Mother Mary designed for an Atherton woman who wanted it outside her bedroom window so it would be the last thing she saw at night, the first thing in the morning.
"If people have the unusual they want done, they come here," Fontana says.
The reason they come to Fontana's, he says, is the old-world expertise of stonecutters Masnada and Ward can provide. And those two men are now teaching two younger fellows, Russ Baker, a Pacifican who's been with Fontana for eight years, and Ron DelCarlo, a seven-year employee who also lives in Pacifica, the fine art of stonecutting.
"These guys really make the company go," Fontana adds. "These four do the work of 12 men."
There's about a two-month backlog at Fontana's he says, with the shop
turning out about 100 different pieces a month. "Our biggest headache is getting things out on time," Fontana says. "My guys insist on quality. They'll only do it the right way."
"THE OLD WORK ethic is alive and well here. We make money, but it's secondary. The primary thing is the work we put out. Any complaints, we take care of. We do the absolute best we can, and our bad accounts are virtually zero. People spend a lot of money for the work we do, and they're going to be satisfied."
Fontana was born in San Francisco and raised in Broadmoor Village, graduated from Westmoor High School in Daly City, the College of San Mateo and San Francisco State University. He and his wife, Beverly, son David and daughter Theresa, 21 months, live in South San Francisco.