Memories Cut in Stone
The Independent 03/20/01
by Shannon Davis
COLMA - After filming the movie "Saving Private Ryan," Tom Hanks set out on a mission to raise funds for a National World War II Memorial to be located in Washington, D.C. Hanks was not alone. Groups sprang up throughout the country trying to raise funds to construct local memorials.
A group of Marin County veterans formed the World War II Memorial Fund, began raising money and got the Board of Supervisors to approve building the monument at the Marin Civic Center. But it wasn't until the group enlisted the help of one of the only granite manufacturing companies left in the world, to design and construct the monument, that they realized their dream monument was going to be a reality.
V. Fontana and Co. is a family business passed down from generation to generation. They've been creating fine marble and granite products in Colma since 1921.
Mark Fontana's grandfather started the business and now he and his father, Elio, work to keep the last independent-
ly owned manufacturing plant on the West Coast up and running. "My grandfather started it and my dad went and fought in World War II and when he came home, he ran it. It's the last of its kind. There are only eight others in the country," said Fontana.
Erma Parson, spokesperson for the WWII Memorial Fund, said that as soon as they paid a visit to Fontana they knew it was the right company for the job.
"We had visited other companies, but when we hit Mark, we knew we hit the right person. His dad went home and designed the monument and we are very pleased with it," said Parsons.
The memorial will stand 15 feet tall, made from a local California light Sierra granite. There will be a dark granite plaque more than four feet high and about three feet wide.
The five insignias representing the armed services of World War II will be engraved in the plque. The memorial will have vertical fluted columns, giving the impression of reaching for the sky. A cast-bronze American eagle will cap the top.
Fontana said that he jumped at the opportunity to get involved with this project. "These guys found us and wanted us to get involved in the latter part of last year. We've been plugging away ever since, with about three months ago," said Fontana. "It's been great to work on something so significant with wonderful, focused people."
The 12 to 14 veterans on the memorial fund committee have been going full blast as well. "We've raised $40,000 so far and we need raise $75,000. We're set to break ground in March with the unveiling set for Memorial Day," said Parsons, whose husband serves on the committee as a veteran of the Battles of Normandy, Holland and Bastogne.
Parsons and her husband visit Normandy every June 6, where large crowds gather to remember D-Day and recognize those who gave their lives. "It's the war that gave us the freedom we have today and we have no memorial. I told my husband if I don't do anything else before I die, I'm going to do this even if we have to pay for it ourselves," said Parsons.
Fontana is only charging the group the cost to make the monument, meaning the company won't be making a dime on the project. "Sometimes jobs come along that are more important than money and this is one of them," he said.
Fontana and Co. deals with pretty much everything involving the stone industry. "We're fabricators of all types of signs, benches and monuments," said Fontana. "About half of our work is monuments and gravestones."
V. Fontana and Co. was involved in fabricating the entry portals at Golden Gate Park and sculptor George Segal's Holocaust Memorial near the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park. They started out as huge boulders, until shapes are cut into them and a finish is added. That is after designs are drawn.
"We do sketches and go back and forth until we get exactly what the customer wants," said Fontana.
Another aspect of this manufacturing business that few people would ever know about is the role it plays in making computer chips, which happens to be the other half of the business. "Computer chips come to us in the form of 5,000-pound quartz blocks. We start the manufacturing process by cutting them and running the pieces through a servicing machine.After that we send them to Silicon Valley," said Fontana.
It's a business with an equal balance between the creation of art and hard physical labor. It's also a unique fixture in the area and a great place to go see exactly how large stones are made into useful and beautiful creations.