Whether on a sales trip representing Wilmington-based UniFirst Corp. or chatting with its employees, Anthony F. DiFillippo, who rose to be president of the uniform service and supply company, wasn’t concerned with formalities.
“You always had to call him Tony. There was no pretense,” said his son David, UniFirst’s senior vice president of operations. “He loved to go to our factories and talk to the workers, and it was amazing how he knew so many people by their first name and about their families.”
In a 1990 profile published in the trade journal Industrial Launderer, Mr. DiFillippo noted that “before making major decisions, we gather input from all our people.” There was a good reason, he added: “Who knows more about washing than the wash man? Who knows more about servicing customers than the route salesman?”
Mr. DiFillippo, a past president of the Institute of Industrial Launderers, died of Parkinson’s disease June 26 in his Topsfield home. He was 90.
His longtime friend Manny Tidor, a former president of Standard Uniform Co. of Boston, said Mr. DiFillippo “was dynamic and a people person with a very strong sense of honor. Whatever was agreed on was usually by handshake. You could trust his words, and I was a witness to that trust.”
With 250 facilities and 14,000 employees, UniFirst serves customers in North America and Europe. Originally called National Overall Dry Cleaning Co., it was founded in 1936 in a converted horse barn in Boston.
Its equipment then consisted of a single washing machine and a delivery truck.
UniFirst began trading on the New York Stock Exchange in the early 1980s, when it assumed its present name. That move triggered a period of expansion over the next several years that included the acquisition of a dozen competitors.
Mr. DiFillippo, who played an integral part in that growth, had joined the firm in the early 1950s and was assigned to its new Springfield office.
Over the years, he was a sales representative, branch manager, general manager, vice president of sales, and executive vice president. He was UniFirst’s president from the mid-1980s until retiring in the mid-1990s and was a member of its board of directors for 10 years.
As teenagers, his children David, Donna, and Steven worked in the stock room at the company’s former Woburn facility.
Mr. DiFillippo, who relished delivering a well-timed punchline and listening to Frank Sinatra songs, “was the consummate storyteller, and he came alive when he was deep in conversation with someone or, better yet, in front of a crowd,” said Donna, who lives in Boston.
She has worked with Raising a Reader MA, which encourages home reading habits in high-need communities and is a philanthropic consultant to UniFirst.
Donna said her father’s charisma “served him well in his career at UniFirst. He had a way of lifting spirits, and after talking with him, employees felt appreciated, and more importantly, respected.”
David, a Lynnfield resident, said his father, who started the company’s sales force and created its first telemarketing center, believed in promoting employees from within and then “pushing them to be the best they could be, while giving them hope.”
Hope for himself as a young man, and later for his growing family, was a recurring theme in Mr. DiFillippo’s life.
“He was originally a poor man who aspired to the middle class, and he was going to make damn sure his kids got there,” Donna said. “The primary goal of my father’s life was to give his children more than he had.”
Anthony Francis DiFillippo grew up in a small apartment in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Providence, the son of Sabatino DiFillippo, a factory worker and street cleaner, and the former Cecilia Minginelli.
Mr. DiFillippo was on the track team at Mount Pleasant High School in Providence, graduating in 1945. He joined the Coast Guard near the end of World War II, was stationed in Hawaii, and afterward used the GI Bill to become the first in his family to graduate from college. He graduated in 1950 from Bryant College.
While attending Bryant, he met Jennie Avila, and they married in 1953. While dating, they visited jazz clubs in Boston and went to Brockton, where they watched Mr. DiFillippo’s favorite boxer, Rocky Marciano, train.
Donna said they would eat Jennie’s homemade sandwiches on those rides, a treat that became a family tradition. The couple also shared a passion for travel.
On their 50th anniversary, they rented a small hotel in Verona, Italy, for the family. They also took an around-the-world, 3½-month trip when they were both 80. Their stops included the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China.
The family resided for many years in Lynnfield, where the DiFillippos took great pride in their sons’ achievements as football captains at Lynnfield High School, and in Donna, who was head majorette.
Their home was the scene of many post-game parties, and their station wagon was the focal point for family jaunts along the eastern seaboard when Mr. DiFillippo went on business trips.
A service has been held for Mr. DiFillippo, who in addition to his wife, sons, and daughter leaves a sister, Marie Croatti of Weston; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Burial was in Forest Hills Cemetery in Lynnfield.
A subsequent celebration of Mr. DiFillippo’s life, which included a band playing Sinatra tunes, was held at Davio’s restaurant in Boston, which is owned and was founded by Steven DiFillippo.
Steven, who lives in Wenham and owns 10 Davio’s restaurants, paid tribute to his father in his book “It’s All About the Guest.”
On one occasion, Mr. DiFillippo “reminded me of something he’s been saying for years,” Steven wrote.
“The people, Steve. It’s all about having good people,” Mr. DiFillippo told his son. “You can’t get anywhere without them. And you have to treat them right. Then watch, they treat you right. I could tell you so many great stories. What a time I had.”Marvin Pave can be reached at email@example.com.