By JACOB MARROCCO Seemingly nothing can stop Thomas Pagliarini, a 92-year-old Johnston fixture who ran Central Nurseries for more than six decades after returning from the Korean War. Pagliarini enlisted just a couple months after the conflict began,
Seemingly nothing can stop Thomas Pagliarini, a 92-year-old Johnston fixture who ran Central Nurseries for more than six decades after returning from the Korean War.
Pagliarini enlisted just a couple months after the conflict began, being one of the first soldiers sent out of the Ocean State as part of the 445th Ordinance Ammunition Company. He earned a gold seal at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds Ammunition School, according to a 1991 program detailing his service, and supervised night operations in Haeunde.
“All the ammunition that went on the front line had to go through our train station, and I came out of the service, everything was fine,” Pagliarini said during a joint phone interview with his daughter, Laurie, this week. “It was really something that I wouldn’t want to do again, but it was quite an experience.”
He was released in 1952 after nearly two years in the service, receiving his honorable discharge in August the following year. Upon returning home, he became a partner with his father Alessandro at the shop, beginning a dedicated career as an arborist that later saw him become tree warden and a conservation officer in Johnston.
He remained active outside of the business, too, serving on the town’s water task force and helping to build a system “that went into effect and it led right up to the Central Landfill.” He also worked on the landfill’s advisory board at the request of former Mayor Ralph aRusso.
He always had his nose to the grindstone, but one person was always there to support him through his endeavors.
“I was pretty active. I was a busy guy,” Pagliarini, who retired in 1998, said. “Thank God I had a real good wife [Grace], she was an angel. We were married for 62 years. I lost her three years ago. A big loss. I’m managing that. I’m 92 years old, and I’m coming through some real tough times.”
Those tough times began just a few weeks ago, when Pagliarini was diagnosed with coronavirus and battled pneumonia at Miriam Hospital for more than a week. He’s home recuperating with Laurie now, but he’s also staving off a mRSA blood infection – though his daughter said that ailment is “on its way out.”
“He’s beating it all,” Laurie said. “It basically happened all together. It all just came together and the doctor just thinks that it was because he was battling so much that things kind of took a turn for the worse there. He’s doing pretty good.”
He may be out of the woods, but Thomas Pagliarini cautioned readers to take the disease seriously. He said fending off COVID-19 was “one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had.”
“And I tell you, anybody gets that COVID, they’ve got to hang in there,” he said. “They’ve got to fight it. They’ve got to fight it. It won’t go away by itself, you’ve got to help. You start getting depressed, you start to lose it, but I stuck with it and unfortunately I had pneumonia on top of that, but I’m home now. I’m living with my daughter, she’s taking real good care of me.”
He said he was enjoying retirement for two decades and remaining “community-minded,” until “this bug came along.” He has therapists and a nurse dropping by the home a few days every week to help his recovery.
“They work on me and they keep me going. I’m enjoying what life I have left. Ninety-two years I’ve been around this place, but I know one thing – I still know what time it is,” he said with a laugh.
Pagliarini has put in his time for Johnston, and the state as a whole, over the decades. He’s worked fundraisers for the American Heart Association, served as area chairman for the Woonasquatucket unit of the American Cancer Society and was previously the president of the Rhode Island Nurserymen’s Association.
His list of accomplishments could fill a book, but he’s especially proud of his 1991 award as one of the “outstanding entrepreneurs” in Rhode Island. Pagliarini purchased Morgan Mills – at the time, a 150-year-old centerpiece of Rhode Island’s Industrial Revolution – in two separate transactions, first in 1969 and then in 1971. It was passed from the Sprague family through a couple other owners before Pagliarini bought it from a private resident in Johnston and redeveloped the business park.
“I maintained the name to keep the history, I named the street Morgan Mill Road. I thought that was quite an accomplishment,” Pagliarini said. “The American Industrial Revolution started here in Rhode Island, in Pawtucket. That was quite a thing for me, that made me feel great. I did something I thought was real worthy.”
Throughout all of his successes, the one constant for Pagliarini has been family. He can’t be stopped as long as they are by his side, and one doesn't have to look any further than the name of his company – Val-Gioia Properties – to see that love and commitment.
“He named that after my two daughters – one’s named Gioia and one’s Valentina,” Laurie said.