Fiery builder has softer side

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Get Nicholas Bernard Mangione talking about how he became a multimillionaire developer after growing up poor in Baltimore and he is the essence of charm.

He not only reminisces, he makes small asides -- as though hearing the stories he is telling for the first time. He is relaxed, warm, gracious and hospitable.

But get the 70-year-old patriarch of Mangione Family Enterprises talking about government bureaucracy and his demeanor changes. His body tenses and his voice becomes agitated. In that moment, he appears the embodiment of anger.

If Mr. Mangione has a public relations problem, it is this: The grandfatherly persona is mostly private -- shared with family and friends. But the angry, combative, accusative side comes out in public, aimed at people who oppose or attempt to slow his projects.

"If people treat me in a fair and honest way, we get along fine," says Mr. Mangione, who is pushing to build a country club, golf course and 50 homes on the historic Hayfields Farm property he owns in Hunt Valley. "If they tell lies, my temper just gets the best of me."

It is a temper well-known to government officials, community leaders and to the citizens whom he sometimes shouts down during public meetings. His is a temper so explosive that even some of his friends ask not to be quoted about him, fearing their remarks may be misinterpreted.

Opponents have the same fear. The Dulaney Valley Improvement Association, for example, has fought Mr. Mangione for years over parking at his Towson office building and his plans to build a nursing home nearby. The group's president won't talk publicly about their problems with Mr. Mangione for fear of being sued.

It is Mr. Mangione's impatience that "gets him into trouble," a Howard County official says. "Nick wants to visit a development the day after he conceives of it."

Howard County once hauled Mr. Mangione into court when the developer forged ahead with bulldozers after he got tired of waiting for permission to build a second golf course at his Turf Valley resort in Ellicott City.

"He has been in fights everywhere he has been -- whether it's in Howard County, Lutherville, or here in [Hunt] Valley," says Shirley Mand, a valley resident who lives across the road from Hayfields.

Baltimore County's zoning commissioner recently approved Mr. Mangione's request to build a country club and golf course on 226 of the farm's 474 acres. Mr. Mangione wants to build 50 homes on the remaining land.

Ms. Mand and many of her neighbors oppose the golf course project. But she says that "Nick Mangione is a good person," and that "if you are his friend and in need, he will be there for you. The whole family is like that."

He's also "very determined," she says, "and will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. . . . I firmly believe Nick won't stop with 40 or 50 houses and one golf course -- or won't follow restrictions placed on him."

Martin P. Azola, a former member of the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission, came away with a different view of Mr. Mangione after meeting with him to urge protection of historic structures on the Hayfields property. He was reminded of his own father, also an Italian-American developer.

'A matter of honor'

"They both had a hard time understanding why regulations are needed when they are providing opportunities for new jobs and tax revenue," Mr. Azola says. "What they want to do with the property they own becomes a matter of honor, of principle."

The real key to understanding Mr. Mangione, says former Baltimore Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, is to look at his family -- his wife, Mary, to whom he is devoted, and the five sons and five daughters to whom he is gradually turning over his business.

"Nick Mangione is foremost identified as a family man," Mr. D'Alesandro says. "That's his calling card even before he became a successful businessman. He is maybe a little rough around the edges and maybe with an aggressive personality, but a man with a big heart. . . . He earned his success the hard way."

Born in Baltimore's Little Italy, Mr. Mangione spent his first eight years in a one-room flat with an outdoor privy until his family moved several blocks north to a three-story rowhouse with two other families in the 800 block of Aisquith St.

Father dies

His father, Louis, an Italian immigrant who could not read or write, worked in the city water department until he died of pneumonia when young Nicholas was 11.

"A water main busted, and he refused to leave in the rain," Mr. Mangione says. "He was 42 and strong -- a good, hard-working man who never lost a day's work all during the Depression -- but he caught pneumonia and died."

The family was left without income.

"There was no welfare, no city pension," Mr. Mangione says. "We had little help from outsiders. Once a week, my brother and I would get a bag of flour from the church."

Everybody in the family went to work. Mr. Mangione sold newspapers three hours each afternoon, peddled shopping bags from 6 a.m. to midnight on weekends and learned shorthand and typing in his remaining hours.

By the time he was 15, he had his first full-time job, working as an accounts receivable clerk before joining another company as a secretary-bookkeeper.

In January 1943 -- a month before his 18th birthday -- he enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to a destroyer, the USS Caperton. He survived "some of the bloodiest battles of the South Pacific."

Upon his return from the service in December 1945, he found two part-time jobs and sandwiched them between accounting studies.

"It was God's strange way of directing me," he says. "I saw my boss making big money, and I asked for a raise. I got a long lecture and [a raise to] 90 cents an hour. This guy had no real education. He was a former bricklayer turned entrepreneur making a $300-a-week draw. I thought, 'I ought to be able to do something like that.' "

And so in 1949, Mr. Mangione became a contractor, laying bricks while his partner, the late Michael Demarino, did the estimating. After 2 1/2 years, he bought out his partner and continued the 14- to 16-hour days to which he had become accustomed.

Mr. Mangione's motivation for working so hard was his wife, Mary -- "the best thing that ever happened to me" -- and their growing family.

"I was telling my wife as each child was born that I had to work that much harder," he says. "God would provide the job I needed, and I would make the low bid. Every time my wife had a baby, there was another job to build."

Buys Turf Valley

After two decades of government contracting, he began building and owning nursing homes, office buildings and hospitals -- including Fallston General in Harford County. And he dreamed of what in Howard County has become his signature project -- Turf Valley Golf and Country Club.

When he bought Turf Valley in 1978, "tongues started wagging," he says, "people wondering where an unknown Italian could get the money for a $5 million project.

"In those days, there were no Italians in real visible positions [in Howard County]. People thought I needed money from the Mafia to buy this place. They asked me what family I belonged to. I told them, 'I belong to the Mangione family. The Mangione family of Baltimore County.' "

Mr. Mangione also says he caught a whiff of bigotry 25 years ago while playing golf as a guest at Baltimore Country Club and the elite Elkridge Club. "It was because I was Italian, plain and simple," he says.

The attitudes at both clubs have changed since then, he says, but he never will play either course again. Instead, he revitalized Turf Valley and turned it into his own golf club.

Ironically, Turf Valley itself was accused of discrimination in 1988, when Mr. Mangione's late nephew, Fred Grimmel, uttered a racial slur on a black community leader's answering machine, not knowing the machine still was operating.

Black members, who previously felt welcome at Turf Valley, called for a boycott. Mr. Mangione returned from his vacation in Florida to deal with the ensuing furor.

His nephew was not a racist, he says, but was under tremendous stress because of family problems. The remarks were "stupid and insensitive," he says, but came after someone baited him.

Even so, Mr. Mangione reluctantly fired his nephew amid mounting pressure -- though he hired him back some months later. "It's taken years to recover" from that incident, Mr. Mangione says.

His public image remains mixed and controversial.

Over the years, Mr. Mangione has been given numerous honors -- he was named the Outstanding Business Person of the Year last year by the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce, for example -- and has supported various charities, including Loyola College, the Association of Italian-American Charities, Associated Jewish Charities and the Baltimore Opera Company.

"He has done some fine community and charity work and has become a successful businessman," says Barbara Poniatowski, president of the Dulaney Valley Improvement Association, which has had run-ins with Mr. Mangione over the years. "But beyond that, I decline to say anything . . . because neither I nor the association want to end up in court over my comments."

Children take over

Mr. Mangione says he is taking more of a background role in the family business as he recoups strength after a recent illness. He is beginning to pass the mantle to his children, led by civil engineers Louis and John, the two oldest sons. All 10 are in the business and call their father "boss" when dealing with outsiders.

"I'm beginning to enjoy life now," he says. "My pleasure has always been the company of my wife. My sons and daughters -- are taking over. . . . There is good family relations -- no animosity, no jealousy."

Despite public conflicts through the years, Mr. Mangione remains undiscouraged, seeing himself as an American success story -- an example of what can happen when people work hard.

"I didn't have two nickels to rub together when my father died when I was 11, yet I still became a millionaire," he says. "What other country can you do that in? None that I can think of."

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