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Immigrant, Veteran and NASA Engineer: The Life of Morning Pointe of Knoxville resident Dario Antonucci

Dario Antonucci portrait

From a small olive farm to outer space, Dario Antonucci has made his mark on the world. Now a resident at Morning Pointe of Knoxville, Tennessee, Assisted Living, Dario is 99 years old and still has stories to share.

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photo of Dario (left) with his mother, Rosa, and sister, Gulia, in 1928
Dario (left) with his mother, Rosa, and sister, Gulia, in 1928

Childhood in Italy

Dario was born in the Calabria region of Italy, in 1924, to Angelo and Rosa Antonucci. His family lived in a terracotta brick house on an olive farm. It had no road, telephone, toilets or showers. They brought up water from a spring and did the laundry at the local river.

“We were brought up to work from the day we were born, and my mother taught me to harness a donkey at 5 years old,” Dario remembered.

Dario’s father was a veteran of World War I, and put his name on a quota list to come to America, the Land of Opportunity. He was able to go over in 1923, before Dario was born, and he established himself as a landscaper. The plan was to bring his family over as soon as possible to get out of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime.

“He signed up for citizenship the moment he arrived,” Dario said. “In 1929 he got his citizenship and tried to come and pick us up at Christmas time.”

The attempt, and another attempt in 1932, was unsuccessful due to Rosa’s tuberculosis. Angelo came again at the end of 1934 and was there for his wife’s passing in January 1935. In 1937, the children finally got passports, and Angelo Antonucci brought Dario over to the United States.

photo of Dario in 1932 applying for a passport
Dario in 1932 applying for a passport

“We really escaped,” Dario said. “They tried to hold us back when the boat was at the dock. They took my father away and took everything he had, and the gangplank was moving. I left my sister with a couple of sailors on the ship, and I jumped up to go look for my father. My father was coming up the stairs, and by the time we got to the dock, the dock was 18 inches away from the boat, and my father grabbed my hand and said, ‘Let’s jump,’ We jumped, and two sailors grabbed us. So, we made it.”

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Starting Life in America

Angelo settled his family in Long Island.

“It was the greatest thrill – we had never seen a stove, electrical lights, radios, telephones… it was a novelty.” Dario shared. “It was a totally new world.”

Dario started school and began to learn English. He was especially adept at math.

In July 1939, when Dario was 15, he met 12-year-old Annette. It was a Sunday, and he and his father had come home from Mass and were burning brush in the back. His father went inside, and Dario stayed outside to finish the task. It was a hot summer day, and Dario had gotten sweaty. He came inside through the kitchen door and was startled to see that his family had company. His sister was talking to a girl about her age, Annette’s older sister.

“I was a mess,” Dario said. “I sneaked upstairs to change.”

Over the next several years, the two families of Italian immigrants got to know each other better, and Annette and Dario became friends.

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photo of Dario in 1943 in intelligence school
Dario in 1943 in intelligence school

World War II

Dario was in high school when the United States entered World War II, and just after he completed his final exams in 1942, he went to enlist in the Army Air Corps.

At first, he wanted to be a pilot, but he didn’t pass the spin test. So, he became a radio operator and mechanic.

After extensive training and a final stop to say farewell to his family, Dario shipped out. Along the way, his ship was chased by a submarine. He arrived in Bombay, India, 45 days later. Dario served in Northeast India, the Himalayan side north of Kolkata in Assam. “I flew over the jungle, and that’s all it is is one long piece of green with no point of reference,” Dario said.

One of his jobs was tracking aircraft using triangulation across the jungle since radar wasn’t available. Another role he played was delivering supplies to troops in China.

“That saved China from the Japanese,” Dario explained.

Service in India was grueling. Dario served 16 months and remembers surviving on K-rations. He got bitten by mosquitoes and contracted malaria, despite the preventative medications he was taking.

Among it all, Dario continued to correspond with Annette, who he realized had become more than just a friend.

“She would write me every week,” he said.

Finally, the war ended, and troops started returning to the States.

photo of Dario in 1945 in Burma
Dario in 1945 in Burma

“We were the last group to leave Burma,” Dario said. “When the war was over, we had to destroy our equipment.”

Dario headed back to America on Dec. 31, 1945, and arrived at the beginning of February. He discharged at Fort Dix in New Jersey on Feb. 9, 1946.

Then it was off to his home.

“I got home at 2 in the afternoon,” Dario remembered. “The first thing my father said was, ‘Go get a haircut.’”

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Research Engineer

Once he was back in the U.S., Dario pursued his education with a view to becoming an engineer. However, by the time he discharged from the military, the day colleges were completely booked with returning veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill.

“They told me I had to wait four or five years before I could get into day college, and I said, ‘I don’t want to wait that long.’” Dario said. “Brooklyn Polytechnical Institute and New York University had night sessions, so I enrolled in night sessions.”

At night, Dario took classes, and during the daytime, he worked – 16 hours a day! He was determined to create a bright future for himself, and the work ethic his parents instilled in him drove him to do whatever it took.

“There were no good jobs,” Dario explained. “I did the jobs that no one else wanted to do.”

Dario finally got a good job in his field at Polytechnic Research and Development Lab in Brooklyn, and he and Annette married on July 7, 1951. They went on to have three children: a son (Richard) and two daughters (Rosemary and Daria).

photo of Dario and Annette’s wedding in 1951
Dario and Annette’s wedding in 1951

From PRD, Dario got a job at Sylvania Research Lab, where he worked for eight years. Most of Dario’s research was on vacuums, and the role set the groundwork for a career in aerospace engineering. After all, space is a giant vacuum.

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To Space and Beyond

In 1960, he went to work for Grumman Engineering Corporation in Long Island. And all the time, he continued studying, taking classes in everything related to space.

“The job they assigned me to was to establish precision laboratories for measurements,” Dario said. “Without precision measurements, there would have been no space.”

He established the low-frequency laboratory in one year and then the microwave and high-frequency lab.

photo of Dario speaking in 1968 at the National Conference of Standard Laboratories
Dario speaking in 1968 at the National Conference of Standard Laboratories

Grumman was one of the companies that contracted to work on the Apollo and Mercury projects at NASA.

“I was responsible for all the measurements for the lunar module – the radar, the communication, navigation and physical measurements,” Dario shared. “We built the module that Armstrong and Company were in to land on the moon,” said Dario. “We worked night and day to get all the systems going on that.”

After Grumman, Dario went to work for IBM for three years.

“I was support engineer for the C-2 aircraft, the only transport airplane that can land and take off from an aircraft carrier,” he shared.

He also worked on the F-14 OV aircraft.

“I was a jack-of-all-trades for a while,” Dario said.

Dario retired in 1987 after he started going blind in one eye. He had worked in research for 10 years and aerospace for 30 years. It took three engineers to fill his role.

He moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where his son had just graduated from medical school and established a medical practice. Dario volunteered in the area for a while after retirement and took his grandchildren to music lessons and other extracurricular activities. Through his involvement with his grandkids, he was asked to be a nurse at West Hills Elementary School and served in that role for six years.

Annette passed away in 2018, after 68 years of marriage.

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photo of Dario with Trish Werner, Licensed Practical Nurse at Morning Pointe of Knoxville
Dario with Trish Werner, Licensed Practical Nurse at Morning Pointe of Knoxville

Coming to Morning Pointe

Dario was living by himself and started losing too much weight. He moved in to a local assisted living facility, and when Morning Pointe of Knoxville, Tennessee, opened in 2019, he followed the management to the new community, conveniently 5 minutes from his son.

“They’ve got nice people here – they’ve been wonderful,” Dario said. “It’s a big family. I’m happy.” Dario’s favorite activity at the campus is simply to go outside and walk around, as well as listen to classical music.

As he looks back on his life, Dario shared that he is the proudest of when his children were born.

“My wedding was great, but when my child was born, I think that was the greatest gift,” Dario said.

His children remain active in Dario’s life.

photo of Dario with Debbie Bendy, Receptionist at Morning Pointe of Knoxville
Dario with Debbie Bendy, Receptionist at Morning Pointe of Knoxville

Dario, thank you for your service and your contributions to our exploration of the universe. We are so glad you are part of our Morning Pointe family!

Author’s Note: You can read more about Dario’s life in his autobiography, “Dario: America’s Gift to an Immigrant,” which is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other bookseller websites.

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