They came to this country with nothing. How many times have you heard that expression? Antonio Valente came to the U.S. from Portugal, with his wife, Maria, in the 1960s, when they were in their 40s. They came with nothing. “Poor but clean,” Antonio used to say. In dribs and drabs their nine children came over too, eight boys and, batting in the ninth position, a girl. They came to New Bedford, Mass., with its whiff of the Old World and its massive Portuguese population. There were other reasons that New Bedford made sense. The town was home to a major commercial fishing industry. There were jobs in construction and manufacturing. Polaroid was a big employer. Johnson & Johnson hired thousands. The Valente children found their way to the Acushnet Co. It’s Titleist to you and me, but Acushnet to locals, using the name of the rubber company that segued into golf. Of the nine Valente children, seven worked (or work) for Acushnet, plus four spouses. If you’ve played a Titleist sometime in the last 40 years, chances are that a Valente had a hand in making your ball. It’s not their fault you lost it.
The Acushnet Co., named for the town next to New Bedford where it was founded, has a workforce of roughly 4,500, and of the 1,500 employed in New Bedford, about half are of Portuguese descent. The CEO, Wally Uihlein, says the manual dexterity that helped make the Portuguese such legendary fishermen shows up in golf ball manufacturing. That was particularly true when balls were still wound with rubber thread that came off spools like fishing line comes off a reel and the winding had to be knotted off.
The other day, Paul Valente, who is 43 and already has 25 years at Acushnet, gave me a tour of Ball Plant III, where the first 2013 Pro V1s were just coming off the line. Paul is droll, in that New England way, but he could hardly contain his excitement. (“You’re one of the first from outside to see them,” he said.) Antonio and Maria were his grandparents. He works in quality control, and he was wearing a white lab coat.
I could tell that the little alignment arrow on the new ball is now gray instead of black. Others will have to report to you what makes the ’13 ball new and improved. Three years ago I was with Rory McIlroy at the Titleist testing facility in Southern California on a warm February day. He was hitting the new 2009 ball for the first time. He said after three balls that the ’09 ball was faster rising than the Pro V1 he played the previous year. He could tell the difference. You and I, we take our cues from them, right?
Two other Valentes were on my tour. They were Paul’s cousin Kevin, a Titleist computer technician, and Kevin’s father, Julio, a small trim man who recently retired from Acushnet after 37 years. At one point, a large Nigerian-born engineer named Felix Egbe gave Julio a hug and said, “My favorite Valente! We miss you in injection molding, man!” Later, Julio saw his wife, Maria, who was hand-inspecting balls for flaws. She was working a 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, eight hours straight time, four hours OT. She gave her son a kiss and her nephew and her husband a wave. She removed a blue-rubber surgical glove to shake hands with me. She was wearing clam diggers and sneaker-style safety shoes.
Let’s be frank here: Julio and Maria have worked manual labor, nonunion jobs at Acushnet for years and decades; they saved with discipline, they invested prudently, and they’re very, very comfortable. Are they the millionaires next door like my barber at home, with all his real estate? I don’t know. What I do know is that when Romney and Obama go on the campaign trail and talk about the American Dream, Julio and Maria Valente are Exhibit A. Julio’s English is not fluent, but if you spend a day with him, you’ll discover he has picked up certain American catchphrases and turned them into his life. Sitting in a Dunkin’ Donuts, he said, “It’s not how much money you make; it’s how much money you save.”
He insisted on paying for my bagel and iced tea. He was wearing a Titleist golf shirt, as he does most days. His truck was spotless. He built his house himself. He built Kevin’s, too, a palace where he lives with his Thai wife, Nichakorn, a computer scientist. As it happens, Titleist has a major facility in Thailand, and many of the managers and engineers there are from New Bedford. Julio visited once, when he was in Thailand for his son’s wedding.
In their garden in Acushnet, near the fig trees and the clothesline, the Valentes grow string beans, sweet potatoes and all manner of tomatoes. When I asked Julio if I could try a cherry tomato, he gave me a bag of them. I’m eating them now, so sweet they’re like candy. In the corner of the living room stood a grandfather clock, given to him by the company for one of his work anniversaries. In his garage and work sheds I saw every type of shovel known to man but not a single golf club or anything else used in recreation.
Later, we drove to the Acushnet River Valley Golf Course, where his brother-in-law was about to play in the Ball Plant III Wednesday-afternoon league. I asked Julio if he knew the name Davis Love. “Davis Love, Davis Love . . .” he said. He put his hand on his chin. For years the Ryder Cup captain was the face of Titleist. Julio was vaguely aware of the name. David Duval’s name elicited less recognition. Julio was familiar with Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and, most especially, Bobby Orr, the Boston Bruins’ Hall of Famer. All the Valentes are crazy about Bobby Orr. When the Valentes were making their mark at Acushnet, and in America, the Bruins were Gods in Massachusetts. Not that Julio is one to God-up people, because he’s not. From time to time celebrity athletes and politicians and businessmen came through the plant, but they didn’t make much of an impression on Julio. “They need to eat and use the bathroom just like I do,” he told me with a shrug.
I asked Julio why his wife, born in Portugal and getting near retirement age herself, was working a 12-hour shift, something she does about once a week. They don’t need the money. He said, “I think it’s in the genes. It’s hard for us to say no—hard to say no to a company like this. Her managers know they can trust her to do a good job.”
Julio and Maria gave their children classic American names: Jenny, born in 1975, and Kevin, born three years later. Jenny was an academic star in high school, her nose always in a book, but Kevin was always fooling around on a computer. Now he’s 33, with a B.S. from UMass Dartmouth and a good techie job at Titleist. “My father says, ‘You know all those years I told you to get off the computer, and you didn’t listen to me? Well, you were right,’ ” Kevin said the other day. Once, he fixed Uihlein’s balky computer. An executive asked Julio if he was related to Kevin. The father said, “He’s my son!”
Julio Valente has a pension, a 401(k), health insurance. He’s trim, courtesy of a WeightWatchers program offered by the company. “They give it to you, free,” he said. “You’d be crazy not to use it.” Now that he has time, he’s thinking about taking up … golf. “Can I tell you the truth?” he said. It’s a phrase he uses often. “If I knew years ago what I know now, I would have taken up golf. It’s one of the best things for stress. It’s enjoyable. It’s beautiful. It’s a very healthy experience. It’s no wonder that people with extra money play golf.”
He showed me all over Acushnet and New Bedford. He showed me where an old Titleist ball plant was located, in a working-class New Bedford neighborhood. The factory was stifling in summer, and he and his siblings walked to work. He showed me the rental houses he owns and explained the benefits of renting to the elderly—they’re less apt to break things. He showed me Portuguese restaurants and Portuguese churches. We ended the day at a cemetery, St. John’s, on Allen Street. It was a spectacular late-summer New England day.
“Everybody has ups and downs,” Julio said. “Coming to America was the best thing that ever happened to me. This was the worse.”
He walked by one tombstone after another marked by Portuguese surnames. ALMEIDA. BORGES. BETTENCOURT. VALENTE. There, on a single shiny granite tombstone, was his name, his wife’s name and, in between them, their daughter’s name. Jenny died in 1992, a senior in high school, already accepted to Boston University on a full scholarship. Her dream was to become a doctor. She died of a rare form of bone cancer. He comes to her grave site often. He “visits” her, he said, “where she lives.”
The nine Valente children produced 15 in the next generation, Paul and his cousin Kevin and his late sister, Jenny, and 12 others. Only three of that generation work at the Acushnet Co. Others are nurses, teachers, lawyers. One’s a Ph.D. The American Dream.
When Jenny was sick, Julio and Maria relied on their good company health insurance. When they went looking for doctors, their managers at work said, “Take as much time as you need. Your jobs will always be here.” When Jenny died, Acushnet employees showed up in droves.
The cemetery is on a big rolling lawn. You could imagine a golf course on it. With one decisive move, Julio swept the grass clippings off the bottom of the tombstone.
“Every time they cut the grass, they make a mess,” he said. “What are you going to do?”
It was 4 p.m. His wife was home from work. Dinner was on the stove.