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Frank Mauro Gesualdo, WWII vet who founded car dealerships, dies at 90

Frank Mauro Gesualdo owned audealerships was WWII vet who survived 72 hours seafter U.S.S. Hornet was sunk.  |

Frank Mauro Gesualdo owned auto dealerships and was a WWII vet who survived 72 hours at sea after the U.S.S. Hornet was sunk. | Provided photo

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Updated: May 9, 2014 6:32AM



Frank Gesualdo was buried with the rosary he carried with him during one of the most harrowing episodes of World War II.

He survived 72 hours awaiting rescue in the waters of the Pacific Ocean after his aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet, was battered by Japanese bombs in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. The life raft was overloaded, so Mr. Gesualdo and the other sailors took turns hanging off the sides.

Some men slipped under the waves after thirst drove them to gulp down saltwater. Some were taken by sharks, Mr. Gesualdo told his grandchildren.

Mr. Gesualdo’s rosary, given to him by his own father, who kept it close when he fought in World I, “was one of the only things he grabbed as they were going overboard,” said his son, Ralph.

He felt his rosary protected him. “He had just left a compartment, and that was the compartment that got hit and everybody died,” his son said.

Before sinking, his aircraft carrier had a heroic past. The USS Hornet was the launching pad for the Doolittle Raid of April 1942, when American bombers carried out daring airstrikes over Japanese cities, boosting the nation’s morale after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Returning home to Chicago, he founded multiple companies connected to the automotive industry: a collection agency, a repossession business and a chain of car dealerships that has grown to 24 dealerships operated by his children in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana. He also served on the state Toll Highway Authority during Gov. Jim Thompson’s administration.

He died on April 1 at age 90 at Highland Park Hospital.

Mr. Gesualdo grew up in the old Italian neighborhood around Taylor Street, the son of immigrants from their namesake town of Gesualdo, Italy, near the “ankle” of Italy’s boot. He attended Crane Technical High School.

After Pearl Harbor, he tried to enlist in the Air Force because it had the closest recruiting office to his home. But at 6 feet 1 and 275 pounds, the recruiters took one look at him and said, “ ‘We’re looking for fliers — not bombs.’ ”

The next closest recruiting office was the Navy, so that’s where he signed up and became a chief petty officer, his son said.

After the war, he started buying and repairing used cars, renting out a corner of a Taylor Street gas station. “As he grew, he bought the whole gas station as a used car lot,” his son said.

He met his wife, Rita O’Connor, at a dance at the Aragon Ballroom. On their second date, he took her to the racetrack, their son said. “Her horse was winning and she stood up on a chair to cheer her horse and he looked up at her and said, ‘I’m going to marry you.’ ” They were wed 63 years.

In his final months, he was largely limited to a wheelchair, but he was practicing his walking to surprise his wife, his son said. “He privately told me and the caregiver he wanted to dance with her one more time.”

In 1968, Mr. Gesualdo opened his first new-car dealership at 105th and Michigan. He became a leader among Chicago area dealers, said John Grettenberger, who was General Motors’ regional manager for Oldsmobile and a chief of its Cadillac division. In addition to sales volume, Mr. Gesualdo provided GM with marketing research, sharing customer reaction to new cars. He did troubleshooting in the late 1970s when some Olds customers were unhappy to learn their cars had been built with Chevy motors.

A spiffy dresser who always wore wingtips, Mr. Gesualdo wasn’t into automotive status symbols. He took vehicles traded in by customers and motored home to check how they ran. “My dad always drove the junkiest car on the lot, so he could see how it drove,” said his daughter, Gina Fisher. “Every night he would pull in the driveway in a different car.”

Mourners who attended his April 5 funeral told his children he helped them with mortgages, gave them jobs and even donated cars, his daughter said.

Mr. Gesualdo made highly coveted homemade “gravy,” or tomato sauce, using pork neckbones and prosciutto. It was so good he jarred it and labeled it “Mr. G’s Sauce.”

He also made delectable baked clams and Chicken Vesuvio.

“He lived for those Sunday dinners when everybody would come to the house and the holidays,” his son said. His children are thrilled that they began taping him a decade ago at his stove so they can duplicate his techniques.

After the 2003 death of his 49-year-old daughter, Roxane Malo, from cardiac arrhythmia, “He always wore a picture of my sister around his neck,” his son said.

In addition to his wife, Rita, and children Gina Fisher and Ralph Gesualdo, he is survived by his sons Gregory and Mark, his brother, Edward, and 11 grandchildren.

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