Thomas M. Damigella started selling Earl Tupper’s plastic food-saving bowls in 1948 in Everett long before Tupperware parties became an iconic American activity.
Working as a machinist by day, Mr. Damigella and his wife, Ann, eventually turned their Tupperware business into one of the most successful distributorships in the world, launching generations of salespeople and introducing homemakers to the wonders of a bowl with an airtight seal.
Mr. Damigella, who studied theology, had the presence of a preacher coupled with a keen business sense, friends and family said.
“Right from the start, you just had to love this man,” said Jo DeVelis who was a young mother looking to earn extra money in 1955 when Mr. Damigella told her she was going to make a great Tupperware demonstrator.
“I was 23, completely inexperienced, and he made me feel at ease,” said DeVelis, who sold Tupperware for 35 years.
Mr. Damigella, a former resident of Boston’s North End, died in his sleep Sept. 16 at the Topsfield home where he had lived with his son’s family in recent years. He was 97.
“He was a wonderful man who was beloved by many,” said his son, Thomas, who leads Damigella Distributors, which he said is the longest operating original Tupperware distributorship.
One of his earliest memories was watching his parents struggling with where to put all their Tupperware inventory.
“My mother and father were the pioneers of Tupperware,” he said.
According to family lore, the Damigellas’ early sales figures were so high that Earl Tupper called from his office in Grafton to ask how they did it. They were demonstrating the product at house parties while selling Stanley Home Products.
Tupper soon adopted the home party as his sole sales model. The company now says that a Tupperware party is held somewhere in the world every 1.4 seconds.
Born in Chelsea and raised in East Boston, Mr. Damigella was one of five children of Joseph and Lorenzina (Puccio). His parents emigrated from Sicily, where his father had worked as a pharmacist. Joseph later ran a bakery in East Boston.
In the 1930s, the Damigellas were members of a Lutheran church in Boston when Mr. Damigella received a full scholarship to study theology at Concordia College in Bronxville, N.Y. He graduated in 1937 and was also an accomplished violinist.
Editors of his Concordia yearbook wrote: “A genial, well-disposed fellow, ‘Dami’ should succeed in whatever he undertakes to do.”
After college, he spent about a year in ministry before discovering it was not his calling, according to his family. He took a job with Keystone Camera in Boston and worked in manufacturing. During World War II, he was exempt from active military service because of his work fulfilling government contracts.
Mr. Damigella and Ann S. Mazzarino married on Christmas Eve in 1939. She had emigrated from Sicily in 1925, their son said.
They were married 57 years when she died in 1997 at 79.
“To his dying day, all he could do was talk about Mom and what a lucky man he was that someone as beautiful as she had picked him,” their son said in a eulogy at his father’s memorial service.
At the peak of their Tupperware business, the Damigellas’ sales ranked third in the nation and ninth in the world, according to their son.
Mr. Damigella’s Sicilian heritage often surfaced in his motivational sales speeches. When someone complained about an inability to get ahead in life, he liked to say: “Remember, the fish stinks from the head.”
In addition to his son, Tom, Mr. Damigella leaves a daughter, Sandra Ann Nelson of Heathrow, Fla.; a sister, Mary Ferrara of Nampa, Idaho; six grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.
A service was held in First United Methodist Church in Melrose.
Having grown up during the Great Depression, the Damigellas did not take success for granted. “They had a gratitude about what they accomplished and they were always ready to give back to the community,” their son said.
Mr. Damigella helped many friends and relatives, and his contributions built a new emergency room at Melrose-Wakefield Hospital, where he was on the board of trustees and a past president, according to his family.
After his wife died, Mr. Damigella, who was fluent in several languages, volunteered to tutor in Melrose public schools. He became a mentor to two junior high boys who were recent immigrants and needed help mastering English. One student was from Brazil, the other from Ukraine, his son recalled.
Emily Rubenstein, former coordinator of Melrose school volunteers, remembered Mr. Damigella as a charming man.
“He did very well with the kids,” she said. “He was kind. He was willing to meet them where they were at. He built relationships with these kids and he extended himself both to the kids and their families. I remember him with a real soft spot in my heart.”
At 86, Mr. Damigella felt isolated living in the suburbs so he moved to a small apartment off Salem Street in Boston’s North End. “He loved being Italian,” his son said.
He became a board member of the Friends of the North End branch of the Boston Public Library and enjoyed dining in his favorite restaurants, especially La Dolce Vita, his family said.
In 2006, a Boston Globe photographer captured Mr. Damigella deep in conversation with a friend in the street outside Polcari’s Coffee.
In the photo, which the Globe featured as one of the best of the year, Mr. Damigella pushes a small cart and holds his hand over his heart as he speaks. It was a familiar gesture to family members who said it was usually accompanied by good advice and the words, “Believe me.”
Tupperware corporate headquarters once asked Mr. Damigella in the 1960s about his ambitions. “To leave a good mark of our life’s existence behind, both with our children, our Tupperware Organization, and our personal friends and family,” he wrote.