Tom Lagomarcino
Tom Lagomarcino created a legacy during a lifetime spent behind the soda fountain counter of the Moline store opened by his father more than 100 years ago. (Larry Fisher/Quad-City Times file photo) Larry Fisher

Tom Lagomarcino, the Quad-City's crown prince of the chocolate sundae, died at 7 p.m. Saturday at Trinity Rock Island. He was 95 years old - a few years younger than his Moline soda parlor.

Arrangements are pending at Rafferty Funeral Home, Moline.

Few people faced death more resolutely than the Quad-City patriarch of sweets. He had been failing for months, but kept a joke on his lips:

"I'm still answering the bell, but I don't know what round it is."

A few nights ago, he asked his son, Tom Lagomarcino Jr., to make him a batch of chocolate ice cream, his favorite.

"It better be good," he warned.

"Old Tom" took a few spoonfuls and said, "Now, you're talking."

Tom Lagomarcino could be the most durably admired candyman in America. His original store in downtown Moline has had a spiritual heart of chocolate for more than a century. There is a second Lagomarcino's in the Village of East Davenport.

His family's 100-year-old hot fudge sauce recipe has earned the culinary equivalent of landmark status. Lagomarcino hand-dipped chocolates are shipped around the globe. National Geographic Traveler magazine called the Moline store the best old-fashioned ice cream store in the world. The Lagomarcino family received the James Beard Foundation Award, the "Oscar" of the food industry.

Tom Lagomarcino humbly accepted the accolades and, until recent years, could be found behind the Moline counter, putting pickles on plates alongside the ham salad sandwiches.

He was so loved that more than 2,000 people turned out in 2008 to shake his hand, to hug and kiss him at a block party for the Moline store's 100th birthday. For three hours he acted like a kid soda jerk, smiling ear to ear and repeating, "I'm having a ball. This is a humdinger."

Forever and a day, Tom was a dapper presence in the Moline soda fountain and store, greeting customers and working his head off. The late Bill Getz, a lifetime customer and friend, often said, "He is a gentleman in the true sense of the word, with a charming sense of humor."

Behind rimmed glasses, Tom's green eyes twinkled. He would adjust his below-knees crisp white apron, its strings neatly tied in a bow at the back, and say, "The apron is my robe of office." He tied his neckties short so they wouldn't dip into malted milks or strawberry sodas.

There will, appropriately, be a long white soda fountain apron and an ice cream scoop in his casket.

Tom's father, Angelo, who wore a long apron, too, came to Moline from Italy in 1908 to open a little fruit, candy and tobacco shop at 1422 5th Ave., where the store remains to this day.

"It took sheer guts," Tom recalled years later. "He didn't know the language, couldn't speak English."

The family lived upstairs. When the store got busy, Angelo thumped the tin ceiling with a pole for help to wait on customers.

That tin ceiling still is intact. So is the rest of the place.

One day, a decorator suggested that everything be painted white.

Tom snorted: "Can you imagine, flowered ceiling and white booths? Why, it would look like a beauty parlor."

Tom began working in the store as a child, first washing dishes, then serving and cooking. He grew up to be a suave young man admired by the women customers.

Love arrived in a back booth of Lagomarcino's when Betsy Pinch ordered a strawberry sundae. She remembered: "He was a handsome fellow, but at first I didn't want to get serious because I couldn't pronounce his last name. When he proposed, he warned, ‘Honey, this is going to be a challenge for you.' "

He would leave their home in the morning, dash home for supper at 8 p.m. and be back at the soda fountain until 11 to serve crowds when the last movie let out.

Tom and Betsy had six children. For years, one of the young sons thought Dad was on vacation during December. That was the month Tom and other family members worked 24/7, packing 2,000 or more deluxe Lagomarcino gift baskets full of shiny apples, oranges and bananas.

He liked to remember how baskets were stacked to the ceiling, awaiting delivery.

"We were so busy we had to close the store so people wouldn't step on the grapes. The place looked like a fruit warehouse. We called it ‘atmosphere.'"

Tom loved to talk. He could spin tales like few others ... about the Moline furrier who kept a live fox in his shop, and the druggist had a live snake in the window to promote snake oil. There was an outside buzzer to scare people into thinking it was a rattler.

THE LAST TIME I had a good talk with Tom was at the family's kitchen table in Moline a few years ago.

"I'll never forget that Sunday afternoon," Tom Jr. said afterward. "You and Dad talked for two hours. You two connected. I never heard him carry on a conversation like that since."

Always, the talk turned to chocolate. He said, "I wonder how many thousands of times I've asked myself, ‘What would the world be without chocolate?' "

He paused to ask for some music. He wanted Glenn Miller and "String of Pearls." No rock or loud stuff permitted was permitted in his stores. "No vocals, either, between 11 in the morning and 1. Customers want to hear themselves talk, not other people sing."

The litany returned to Betsy, who is quite a few years younger than Tom. She still drops into the Moline store to pack chocolates. The day we visited, she patted his hand as they talked about their children.

"We couldn't be carrying on the Lagomarcino tradition without three of them - Beth, Tom Jr. and Lisa," Tom said in a strong voice. Tom has his doctorate; Beth, her master's; and Lisa, her bachelor's degree. All left careers to come home and keep the stores going.

Before we parted that Sunday sunset afternoon, I remember Tom rising from the kitchen table, clearing his throat and laughing:

"I'm a 1915 model and all my parts are out of warranty."

Contact Bill Wundram at (563) 383-2249 or bwundram@qctimes.com.

 

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