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Father's Day 2019: Joining Dad in the family business

As children, they watched as their fathers left for work and, no doubt, wondered where they were going and what they were doing when they got there.

When they got older, they tagged along, sometimes by choice, sometimes otherwise.

Then there came a point when they decided they wanted to do what dad does.

This Father’s Day, we talked to three fathers whose career paths became “the family business” when their children followed in their footsteps.

Frank Lucianna is the 96-year-old dean of the criminal bar in Bergen County a fixture at the Hackensack courthouse where he has been litigating for 68 years. His daughters, Diane and Nancy, are both attorneys; a third daughter, Susan, was a paralegal until her 2007 death from breast cancer.

Vasilios “Billy” Kamvosoulis, 69, has worked in food service all his life, including 23 years at Pfeiffer’s Luncheonette in Paramus before he took over Nyack Hot bagels in Central Nyack in 1995. His son, Chris, joined him there when he was 14 years old and has been part of Nyack’s morning routine for 22 years.

Ricardo Ramos Sr., 60, is a New Rochelle Fire Department lieutenant at Station 4 on Drake Avenue. His son, Ricardo Ramos II, not junior, is also a firefighter, across town, in a department that is full of fathers and sons and brothers working side by side. The Ramos men brought their life-saving training home with them last July, when they revived Ricardo's wife and Ricky's mother, Deborah, who was struck by a heart attack.

Lawyers, extreme and otherwise

His pace has slowed — practicing law for 68 years will do that to a body — but as Frank Lucianna shuffles the halls of the Bergen County Courthouse, he is greeted as part elder statesman, part conquering hero. 

Always dapper in a pinstriped suit and his trademark shock of white hair, Lucianna stops to greet and salute an Army staff sergeant, to thank her for her service, and to share a World War II story or two, about his 14 friends who didn’t make it back, about how he didn’t do anything that any other American wouldn't have done.

Every new acquaintance is "young man" or "young lady," every assertion is punctuated with the line: “That’s the unvarnished truth.”

The unvarnished truth of it is that Frank Lucianna is still practicing criminal-defense law at the age of 96, and he has a major murder case slated for the fall.

And his two daughters are following along in his storied footsteps.

“He’s the Energizer bunny,” said his daughter Diane, who is a partner in Lucianna & Lucianna, a stone’s throw from the Bergen County Justice Center in Hackensack. “He never stops.”

Her sister, Nancy, calls their father “indefatigable, a unique talent.”

They passed the bar, but Diane and Nancy Lucianna know it's unlikely they'll meet the professional bar set by their father.

“He’s an extreme version,” said Diane, sitting on a sun-dappled bench outside the courthouse. “I’m probably the moderate version.”

The Lucianna daughters — Diane, Nancy and Susan — grew up in the Englewood home of a seven-day-a-week attorney, where dad would work all day and go over files at night, if he wasn’t at night court. 

“Sunday afternoons after church we went to the jail, to state prisons all over the state,” Diane said. “It would be church in our church clothes, then drive to Trenton State Prison or Rahway State Prison or Yardville. Those were the names back then. And then we’d sit in the car for a couple hours while he visited.”

Diane, 62, knew she couldn’t do that kind of lawyering as she battled and beat cancer while raising two children and watching her husband lose his own cancer battle. Part of finding a work-life balance, she said, meant learning to leave the office behind when she went home to Saddle River.

Nancy, 57, who lives in Piermont with her husband and has her own criminal-defense practice in Fort Lee, said she is also not the extreme kind of lawyer, but she’s still trying.

“I’m striving to reach that plateau which is unreachable in my lifetime,” she said with a laugh.

She recalled a particularly unruly death-by-auto case where she was alongside her father, who was going toe-to-toe with a prosecutor, to the point where she worried that punches might be thrown.

"My father turned to me in the middle of it, and I'm a nervous wreck, and he said, 'Isn't this great?' He loved the pressure. It didn't affect him." 

The Lucianna work ethic came at a price. While he was there to drive his daughters to school, Frank said the lion’s share of parenting decisions fell to Dolores, his wife of 64 years.

“She raised the children herself,” he said. “When they had an interest in becoming lawyers, she encouraged them.”

His own father was in construction, and moved to America from Italy in 1900. Frank's childhood was spent mixing cement and hauling bricks alongside his brother, Vittorio — named “Victor” in honor of Allied victory in World War I.

While his father's lessons came in achieving the right proportion of cement, sand and aggregate, Frank Lucianna taught his daughters the right mix of legal strategy and courtroom behavior.

"Oh, there's a voice in my head," said Nancy. "I hear his voice, saying: 'Nan! Lay it down with authority! Project!' That's what I hear."

Diane, who still shares an office with her father, doesn't hear his voice in her head, but the man who is known for waving his arms and being over-the-top in his delivery in his tenacious defense of his clients impressed on her the need to keep judges engaged.

"He always said to me: 'You got to keep the judge's attention even if you go a little crazy because sometimes they're sleeping up there," Diane said. "Sometimes you gotta do that to wake them up. Otherwise you're gonna read that piece of paper in front of them."

Frank Lucianna shows no signs of slowing. After an hour-long interview, he seems more energized than he was at the start.

"I love going to work every day. I love going to my office. I love being with these young people. I love going to court. I love having cases. That's my life. I love it. I'm not making this up. This is the truth."


'You can't lead from behind'

Chris Kamvosoulis didn't set out to become part of Nyack's daily breakfast routine. All he wanted was to catch 40 winks after school.

Most days, the 36-year-old from Paramus can be found behind the counter at Nyack Hot Bagels in the Hub shopping center in Central Nyack. Twenty-two years ago, he was just a kid going to school in Paramus. 

"I'd get home by 2:45 and take a quick half-hour nap," he said. "If my dad caught me napping when he got home from work, he'd say, 'When I was your age, I was working, and you're taking naps?' One day, he said, 'You're coming to work with me tomorrow.'"

Billy Kamvosoulis has been feeding folks in Bergen and Rockland counties for the better part of 50 years, at diners and luncheonettes and at Nyack Hot Bagels, which he has co-owned since 1995.

"I'd say 80 percent of our customers are regulars," he said. "It makes you feel good, like you're doing something right."

He has been slowed by surgeries and Parkinson's disease in recent years, and hasn't been a regular behind the counter in two years. But on a recent morning, when a longtime customer walked in, he remembered her order: "Hazelnut coffee, bagel toasted with butter."

"That's right!" she said.

It's one thing for your dad to punish you for napping by dragging you to work. It's another thing to make it a career.

Chris started working part time on weekends during school and full time in the summers. While studying finance at Fairfield University in Connecticut, he'd still make the drive home on weekends to help out behind the counter.

After he had his degree, he kept coming back to the bagel shop, owned by his father and his Uncle Frank, despite his father's initial advice.

"I told him to not stay in this business too long, because it's a tough business," Billy said. "But if he wants to stay, I say 'OK.'"

All of Billy's boys have worked in the bagel business. Michael now works for NBC; Tom is an attorney.

Only Chris stayed. When Billy's health worsened, Chris' role got larger. 

"My family wasn't happy I was here after college," Chris said. "They were hoping I would do something with my degree and work on Wall Street or something. I couldn't picture myself going to work in a suit and sitting in an office all day."

Chris' mom, Ann, wasn't wild about his decision, to put it mildly.

"He came home and said: 'I don't want to work for corporate America. I want to go manage the bagel store.' I almost fell on the floor. Not that it's bad, but I know it's a hard business to get up at 4 in the morning. I remember you couldn't even talk because (Billy) needed to sleep and get up at 4 in the morning. And then my son decided to follow his footsteps. But he's doing great."

Chris has seen the business grow.

"It was kind of cool, being a part of a family business where, little by little, it's gotten busier and busier."

Watching his dad — who is a man of few words, spoken in a raspy voice with a Greek accent — Chris learned everything he needed to know about a business that people depend upon to start their day.

"Be consistent, come to work every day, be on top of everything, make sure the bagels taste the way they're supposed to," Chris said. "It's a big responsibility and you can't sit back in the office. You can't lead from behind."

Over the years, Chris also learned that he had a work dad and a home dad. Work dad was all business, serious; home dad was gentle.

"Every single employee we've ever had has been intimidated by him," Chris said. "No doubt about it. He doesn't smile. He looks at people with a serious look and they just know. He knows how to manage without opening his mouth. That's the best kind of manager."

But then there was that switch to home dad.

"He'd yell at me all day long, I mean all day long, then I'd come home for dinner and he'd act nice, asking me what I wanted for dinner," Chris said. "And I was like 'You were the biggest jerk all day long and now you want to know what I want for dinner?'"

It's not surprising, then, to learn that Chris thinks about his father only when he's enjoying the job a bit too much.

"Honestly, if I'm having too much fun at work, joking around too much and there's a line, that's when I think about him the most. I hear his voice saying 'You're not supposed to have fun at work.'"

Chris has three children — Vasilios, 5, Mariana, 4, and Samuel, 6 months — the eldest of whom talks about wanting to go to work with his dad.

The only issue is that, at 5 years old, he still needs a nap.

'It keeps keeps the family in the tradition'

It takes a lot to make a firefighter cry, but Lt. Ricardo Ramos of the New Rochelle Fire Department gets a catch in his throat when he talks about how his son, Ricky, persevered to follow in his footsteps.

"He had to go through the academy, a six-month academy, pretty long. But graduation day was probably the proudest I was of him. He's been waiting a long time, ever since he's been a little boy," Ramos said.

As soon as he learned to talk, Ricky Ramos had been talking about being a firefighter.

He grew up visiting whichever New Rochelle firehouse his dad was stationed at, including Station 3 on North Avenue, close to the family's Hubert Place home. When his dad was at Station 2, Ricky would slide down the pole, sit in the truck, try on the helmets.

There were five Ramos kids: Mom, Deborah, a nurse, would shepherd them around to see her husband, whose erratic shifts back then — combined with his second job — made quality time with dad difficult.

But fire families do that, they adjust and improvise to spend time together. And families are drawn to firefighting.

In New Rochelle, Lt. Ramos said, there are cousins and brothers and fathers and sons on the job. The late city firefighter Salvatore Cordaro's five sons are members of the city's Fire Department, recently joined by one of his grandsons.

All Ricky Ramos wanted was to be part of that fire family.

"I always wanted to do the job, but being able to get on the job is different," Ricky said. "You have to take the test and it's very competitive. All the guys who got on before me, hats off to them."

He first took the test at 17, but didn't score high enough to land one of the few open jobs. Only the top two or three applicants are typically hired and those who don't get hired "die on the list," unhired. 

Year after year — for 13 years — he kept taking the test, his rank rising with each attempt. In the meantime, he worked in carpentry and did other things, waiting for that call, the one that finally came in March 2018.

He has yet to enter a burning building, but answered the call on several large fires, including the Wildcliff Mansion blaze last November.

"You don't want a fire. That's someone's worst day," he said. "When you're working if there's a fire, you want to be at the fire, but you don't wish for fires."

Still, the job found both Ramos firefighters at home last July, when Ricky was just four months on the job. That's when Deborah collapsed in their home, into the arms of her husband, a heart attack.

"I heard the bang, because she fell," Ricky said. "I ran upstairs and my dad told me to call 911 and he started CPR. I called then came back in and held her head to stabilize her."

Deborah, a nurse, said most people die from the kind of episode she suffered. Called takotsubo cardiomyopathy or "broken heart syndrome," it's when stress hormones cause the heart to balloon and fail to contract. On the day of the event, she had been cleaning out her late mother's home, an emotional day.

They put Deborah on a Lucas tool, a device that was strapped across her chest and delivered compressions. She was transported to the hospital and had no pulse for an hour and five minutes, but the device kept pumping her blood. They shocked her heart 11 times before it finally began to function properly.

Lt. Ramos is still in disbelief at the timing of it all: "He had four months on the job and his first EMS call was to his mother. We thought we were going to lose her. We really did."

"I couldn't show any fear for my son to make him nervous, but I was nervous as heck. Being on the job for 33 years, EMS calls were a lot of our calls and my training came in big time."

The family had no idea what condition she would be in if she ever came out of the coma she was in. A day and a half later, she was awake and talking, a result she attributes to the fact that two firefighters were within a few feet of her, and acted immediately. She has some memory loss, but has had no other episodes.

Unlike his son, the lieutenant's fire career started on a whim, when he and his wife were shopping at the old New Rochelle Mall, where New Roc City now stands. There was a recruiting table set up. He signed up, took the test, and was in.

"I thought I was going to be a 20-year career, but I'm not ready to leave because there's so much more out there to do. I was able to get promoted to lieutenant, and then my son comes on a job, which is all aces for me. It keeps keeps the family in the tradition."

And who knows, the lieutenant said, as a role model Ricky might inspire his nephews to consider firefighting.

"You never know," he said.

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