Manny Rico spent his early years working in the hot fields in Texas, but through hard work and his winsome personality he wound up building a thriving business and serving on the City Council in his adopted town of Chattanooga.
Mr. Rico, who is still active in the family monument business and who serves on seven different non-profit boards, said his parents were both field workers. His father was 34 years older than Manny's mother, and the family included three other boys and two girls.
He said his parents came to America from their native Mexico and went through the process of becoming U.S. citizens. They settled at Rowlett, Tex., which then "didn't even have a store." It is now a bustling Dallas suburb.
Mr. Rico said he worked the fields through his teen years, but he was determined to get a high school diploma and find a much better career path. He and an older brother both completed the local high school.
He then went into construction and learned to be a welder. The construction was seasonal and he wanted a full-time job so he took a pay cut - from $2.10 an hour to $1.75 an hour - for steady work in a plant that was making bombs for the Vietnam War. He stayed there five years and during that time married Barbara.
Mr. Rico and Barbara then moved to Livingston, Tn., near Cookeville, where his mother-in-law lived. He said he tried to find work there - even going door to door - but none was available.
His brother-in-law was working for Comolli Monuments in Chattanooga and told him they needed another helper. So the Ricos made their way to Chattanooga and settled in St. Elmo. Mr. Rico soon learned all aspects of the gravestone business, including the art of carving the stones.
When Comolli went out of business, Mr. Rico decided to carry it on. He said, "I was doing it all anyway, so I said I might as well operate it."
Since then, a rival firm, Wichman, went out of business, leaving Rico Monuments as the only gravestone firm here. The firm has offices in Rossville and a shop at Flintstone. Mr. Rico said gravestone carving "is really a dying art. But we have been successful because we do it in town and can have a quick turnaround."
Rico Monuments has now been in business for 33 years. He said the problem nowadays "is handling all the orders in a timely way, rather than not being busy."
Along the way, the affable, always-smiling Manny Rico got a visit from two St. Elmo patriarchs - Paul Chapman and Dick Paul. He said, "They were yellow dog Democrats and they knew I leaned toward Republican, but they were dissatisfied with John Taylor on the City Council and wanted me to run. "I told them no way."
But they talked him into it, and he was unable to oust the incumbent. Mr. Rico declared, "I said never again."
However, when Mr. Taylor chose not to run in the next election, the name of Manny Rico was again on the ballot. He won and was in office for two terms, including taking a turn as chairman. He said, "When I first came to Chattanooga, I never dreamed that one day I would be the chairman of the City Council."
Mr. Rico had met many people after joining the Downtown Sertoma Club and being named its program chairman. He said, "The club met every week at that time and I had to line up a speaker each time." He got Police Chief Jimmie Dotson, who later involved him in a number of police activities, including two trips to Washington, D.C., for police activities.
While he was on the City Council he was on nine different non-profit boards, though he has now trimmed that by a couple. He said, "Chattanooga has really been great to me, and it is one way that I can give back to the community."
He added, "When they find out you'll do something for free, they come calling."
Mr. Rico has seen some remarkable changes in his adopted community of St. Elmo. He and Barbara early on were able to get a two-story house with 11 rooms on Alabama Avenue at 52nd Street. He got it for cheap - especially compared to rates now in a booming St. Elmo.
He owned a house next to him, where his mother lived, and he also had two lots. He said, "I tried to give those lots away because I was tired of fooling with them. Nobody wanted them." He finally sold the lots and the small house for much less than they would get now. He said, "The two lots I had now have houses worth over $300,000 on them."
Mr. Rico said, "Some people don't like the changes, but I think it's great. I've always believed in property rights - that you can do what you want with your own property."
Rico Monuments is now operated mainly by his son, Tracey Rico. Tracey and his wife, Dainah, are the parents of Ana, Blane and Jake.
Manny Rico says he - of Mexican descent - was welcomed with open arms to Chattanooga, though there were few people here of Mexican background at the time. He said, "There was a big difference in here and where I had come from in the hospitality. The people here accepted me."