His 35 years at Monsanto Co. produced two blockbusters: the House of the Future, toured by 20 million visitors to Disneyland, and early plastic beverage bottles that predated PET. But before the glory, personal tragedy hit Michael Gigliotti.
``I tried to quit,'' he said.
Gigliotti, 82, recounted the story of his first wife and high school sweetheart, Rita, as he sat in his cozy house on the water in Gloucester. They graduated from Hoboken High School in New Jersey in 1938. Using a full scholarship to Stevens Institute of Technology, he graduated in 1942 with a mechanical engineering degree.
Monsanto hired him. ``They were the lowest of five offers of employment that I had, but I picked them because the Plastics Division was only three years old. It was full of eager, enthusiastic people who knew what they were doing was going to be important some day. And I wanted to be with them,'' he said.
He married Rita in 1943 and they started a family.
He was only 25 when Monsanto made him supervisor of design engineering on an expansion that would double the output of vinyl, polystyrene and melamine resin complex in Springfield, Mass., the company headquarters.
Gigliotti (pronounced ``je-LAH-tee'') said: ``I was `marked.' Monsanto had a program of moving people around who they thought would someday have talent. So I was pushed through jobs that today I don't think anybody could have at that age.'' He oversaw 10 draftsmen and five engineers.
But then Rita came down with a terminal illness in 1949, and died in early 1950. Suddenly he was a single father of three children, ages 6, 4 and 2. A local family watched the kids, and Gigliotti rushed there for lunch, then picked them up at night.
The juggling act was stressful. By then he was maintenance superintendent of the huge operation in Springfield. One day, the personnel manager called and said: ``Hey, we've got an employee for the summer who lives a block away from you. She needs a ride, would you do it?'' She was Miriam Coombs, a skater from Springfield who was home on summer break from the Holiday on Ice show. He drove her to work. Took her to dinner once. In the fall, she returned to the show, which was leaving for a run in Brazil.
At Monsanto, he was starting to unravel. ``I couldn't take the responsibilities of being a maintenance superintendent for a huge plant, getting up at 2 in the morning if there was a breakdown and having these young kids in the house.'' So he decided to move back home with his parents in Hoboken.
On a Monday morning in 1950, Gigliotti walked into Fred Abbiati's office and handed in his resignation. The car was packed, and he and the kids were bound for Hoboken. Abbiati, Monsanto's new vice president and general manager, could relate, since he had had young children, too. He didn't want to lose a good man, so he offered Gigliotti a job at Monsanto's New York office.
He reported to work that Friday. But the job was a downer - recovering ``lost accounts,'' molders that Monsanto had cut off because of nonpayment. ``It was a concentration of very, very good little plastics companies that were exploding. They were tough bastards,'' he said. Translation: He got yelled at a lot.
Then came his 30th birthday, Jan. 31, 1951. He was on the road in Philadelphia, visiting a plastics company with a local salesman. ``We got a really rough reception. The secretary told us that she had orders not to accept anybody from Monsanto, but she'd see what would happen. She made the call. The president of the company came into the lobby and bawled us both out, in atrocious language.''
They left and went to dinner, where Gigliotti mentioned it was his birthday. The sales guy wanted to celebrate! ``I didn't know it, but he was an alcoholic. I had to bring him back to the hotel we shared, wash him up and put him to bed. It's midnight. It's my birthday.''
The guy had thrown up. ``Oh my God. I said, `God, what am I gonna do?' I picked the phone up and asked for the international operator.'' He had a name: Miriam Coombs, Holiday on Ice, somewhere in Rio. It was midnight and the operator wasn't busy, so she agreed to try. At 2 a.m. the phone rang. ``Miriam says, `Mike, why are you calling?' and I said `Miriam, would you come home and marry me?' And dead silence. It felt like an hour.''
Finally, she said, ``Yes.'' Then she hung up.
After they talked again to sort it all out, Gigliotti used some connections to bring Miriam home on an ocean freighter. A priest friend arranged to have them married in 1951 in Lady Chapel at New York's landmark St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Meanwhile, Gigliotti's career was back on the fast track. He was named project manager of a resin plant to be built near Cincinnati. ``We started it on time and below budget, in 1953. I fully expected to stay there as the plant engineer, but it turned out Monsanto had other thoughts.''
The company again picked him as project manager, this time of a polyethylene plant under construction in Texas City, Texas. On time, under budget again.
Plastics meets Mickey Mouse
Again the phone rang - his boss said management was concerned. ``They were worried about the fact that they had put all of this money into the Plastics Division, and the markets into which the products were going were what they called toys and flower pots,'' he said.
Ralph Hansen, a market development manager, thought up the basic idea: to generate data to show engineers, architects and builders how they can use plastics. Monsanto launched the Structural Plastics Engineering Group (SPEG) in 1955. It targeted automotive, furniture, appliances and construction.
Gigliotti was picked to head SPEG because he had gained credibility on large projects after coordinating the resin expansions. His idea: build something dramatic to showcase each market.
In automotive, the composite-bodied Corvette had people excited about plastics. Monsanto commissioned Brooklyn's Pratt Institute to demonstrate plastics on all the little things like dashboards, knobs and seats.
In construction, Monsanto picked the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to design a plastic house. Pietro Beluschi, head of the school of architecture, and Al Dietz, who led the construction engineering department, were eager to build with plastics. They signed up a creative MIT architect, Marvin Goody.
``I told them: `I don't want plastic bricks. I don't want plastic studs. I don't want plastic flooring. What I want is a house made out of plastics that can't be done in any other material,' '' Gigliotti said.
The MIT gang created something extraordinary. Four elegant wings cantilevered off a central pedestal, making the house appear to float in midair. The shell would be made of glass-fiber-reinforced plastic composites, backed with rigid urethane foam. They built a model.
But where to build it? MIT wanted the house at a university to attract the respect of architects. Monsanto's sales department liked New York or Chicago. But it was Edgar Queeny, Monsanto's chairman and president, who called his friend Walt Disney.
Monsanto had already committed to putting in a Hall of Chemistry at Disney's new theme park in Anaheim, Calif. What about this plastic house?
Gigliotti still has Walt Disney's telegram from February 1956, asking for a meeting. Gigliotti took the plans to Burbank and explained the concept. ``We would use the house as the vehicle by which we would display everything new that could go into a house: toilets, showers, refrigerators, washing machines, chairs, walls. All that sort of jazz,'' he told Disney.
Monsanto began lining up partner companies.
Gigliotti and a Monsanto lawyer began negotiations with Disneyland. During the day, they would reach agreements with creative-man Walt, which were later changed by his businessman brother Roy Disney.
Finally they hammered out an agreement. The House of the Future was erected near the entrance to Tomorrowland in June 1957. Arlene Francis and Hugh Downs interviewed Gigliotti about it on NBC's Home show.
The house was built to hold up to 75 people on one of the wings, while simultaneously being hit with a 50 mph wind, a roof temperature from the sun of 185° F and an earthquake. So when it came time to tear the house down in 1967, the wrecking ball bounced off.
Monsanto finally had to cut the house into sections and haul it away.
Now a recognized expert on construction, Gigliotti played a key role on early efforts by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. to make U.S. building codes more plastics friendly. He helped create SPI's Building Code Committee, and Appliances Committee. He became chairman of a new plastics study group at the National Academy of Sciences' Building Research Group.
>From 1961-68, Gigliotti was director of process engineering and technology for Monsanto's Plastics Division. Then he got another fateful call with another new assignment called Lopac.