Excerpts from the E-Sylum: A Tribute to Hugo Greco
Each week, CoinWeek, in collaboration with the Numismatic Bibliomania Society, brings you a highlighted feature from the current volume of the E-Sylum eNewsletter.
This week, numismatic researcher and writer Dick Johnson shares this remembrance of his longtime friend, medallic patinaeur Hugo Greco….
Many fond memories come to mind in my recalling forty-four years of friendship with Hugo. The most prominent was one of the most recent.
We had both been asked to give speeches at a symposium for sculptor Marcel Jovine, born in Italy as was Hugo, but who had died a year before. In a meeting room on the second floor of New York’s Time-Life building filled with fellow sculptors, medal collectors, friends from Closter New Jersey where Marcel had a studio-home, family members, but also a room filled with Italian enthusiasts, Hugo delivered his tribute to the famed artist.
Without prompting or notes, Hugo delivered a most insightful speech extemporaneously! He informed the audience of his relationship with sculptor Marcel. I’m certain they were impressed – as I was – of Hugo’s command of facts and events that tied the two men’s professional relationship to one another.
At the end of his talk, I felt a large degree of pride – pride that I knew Hugo and that he was a friend. In a magnificent speech he had presented a side I had never observed before.
His talk touched everyone in the audience and had stressed an Italian heritage. The best I could do in my speech was to expand on the master craftsmanship of Italian artists. “There must be something in the drinking water in Italy,” I said, “to give the world such artistic creativity and craftsmanship.”
Hugo’s craftsmanship was dramatically illustrated often. One event stands out in my mind. A friend, Donald Scarinci, was researching the Society of Medallists in preparation for writing a book. He had asked Hugo for information on the patina finishes of this series of medals.
On October 26, 2002 we met at a local motel conference room where medal collector Scarinci had laid out all 129 issues of these medals along both sides of a long conference table. Tape recorders were turned on and I took notes.
Hugo sat behind the first issue and without hesitation or reference to any notes stated the name of the patina on that medal and how it was created. He had held the position at Medallic Art Company, which struck the medals over a 70-year period, of either reproducing the original patina on earlier medals or, for the later years when he was foreman of the company’s finishing department, of creating an appropriate patina for each new medal.
Without hesitation Hugo moved from one medal to the next, relating – off the top of his head! – the name of each patina and how it was created, revealing not only the chemicals used, but the technique employed to produce the permanent patina finish to enhance the medal. This was an amazing mental feat but one that exemplified his command of the craftsmanship in the field of medallic arts.
On another occasion we travelled together on a trip to Pennsylvania to the coal-mining area southeast of Pittsburgh. A Catholic Church in this distressed area had built a memorial on the church grounds devoted to hope and the sanctity of life.
A young Connecticut sculptor had prepared some of the sculptural work on the memorial. He was also commissioned to create a medal for this event.
Hugo made the medal from the young sculptor’s models. It is unusual for the medal-maker to be involved with the events a medal honors, but in this case he accepted the invitation. They also needed someone to assist in publicity so I accompanied him.
We stayed at a local motel but had our meals at the church rectory. Nuns served meals to guests and the three priests who lived there. We got publicity on Pittsburgh TV and all the local newspapers. After the Saturday event we sat in the rectory living room that night with dozens of others and watched the news report on TV.
We attended a ceremonial mass in the Catholic church the next day – a first for this protestant boy – and drove back that Sunday. It was on that long drive back that Hugo and I really bonded. I learned much of his past history and his coming to America after World War II as a 17-year old immigrant. I learned of his struggles in life and his employment at Medallic Art Company in 1955.
I learned how and why he was involved with Enduart, establishing a manufacturing branch of the New York firm. It was here my good wife, Shirley, worked for him for the major part of the eight years he was associated with Endurart, after both had left the employment of Medallic Art.
After eight years, Hugo struck off on his own, establishing Greco Industries. It wasn’t long before he brought his two sons, Ricky and Michael, into the business, training them in the techniques he had mastered previously. Success followed as he moved his plant twice to larger accommodations.
In 2007 his crowning achievement was moving Greco Industries into a modern new plant in Bethel, Connecticut. It was here he created one of the most famous medals in the world, the Carnegie Hero Fund Medal. The organization’s previous supplier was not up to maintaining the quality in honor of Andrew Carnegie. New models were prepared – by sculptor Luigi Badia – and new medals struck to their demanding standards.
Hugo operated in many worlds. As an adult he was a consonant family man – with wife Ann they had four children and twelve grandchildren. As a professional he was a master in the finishing of a medal’s surface, rising to become foreman in Medallic Art’s medal plant.
As an entertainer he was at one time a professional flamenco dancer as part of his cousin, Jose Greco’s traveling troupe. As an outdoorsman he was an officer in the Bethel Fish and Game Club, and a deer hunter in the family’s cabin-home in upstate New York.
As a fraternal enthusiast he was a member and trustee of the Italian Amerigo Vespucci Lodge. As a sportsman he excelled at bocce. As a citizen he was a member of the Bethel Zoning Board of Appeals, and since 2001, he was his town’s police commissioner.
I am fortunate I knew Hugo and call him a friend. We often worked together on many medallic projects. I knew I could always call on him for a favor or a fact, often to document something I was writing.
From a 9-year old in Mussolini’s Italy to a New England industrialist, Hugo Greco lived and achieved the American Dream.
I will surely miss him.
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