Technical school helps barbers carry on family tradition
STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) — The Rizzis wouldn't trade their trade for anything.
They are just as true to the place they learned it — J.M. Wright Technical High School, where Anthony Rizzi graduated as a barber in 1960.
Rizzi said he doesn't know what attracted him to barbering when he was a teenager at Wright Tech, where he sang with the school doo-wop group, "The Starlights."
But years later, he learned that his grandfather and great-grandfather, both of whom died before he was born, were barbers in their hometown of Minturno in central Italy.
Rizzi has done his part to sustain the tradition. His son, Vinny, and daughter, Cabrina, cut hair with him in his downtown shops — Federal Hairstylists I in the Marriott Hotel on Tresser Boulevard, and Federal Hairstylists II in Landmark Square.
Like their father, Vinny and Cabrina Rizzi are Wright Tech graduates. Like their father, they love their trade.
Well, Cabrina likes hairstyling. Vinny likes barbering.
"When I was at Wright Tech, it was combined. I had to study 'cosmetology,'" Vinny said. "That was hard when all my friends were in plumbing and electrical. But they knew my father had barber shops and I wanted to be a barber — not do perms and stuff."
"Yeah," Anthony said. "Vinny didn't want to do pin curls."
That wasn't a problem when Anthony was a student at Wright Tech. Back then, the school offered barbering for boys and hairdressing for girls. It was tough to get into Wright Tech — you had to pass a test and there was a waiting list, Anthony said.
"If you made it in, it was an honor," he said. "Only 5 percent of Italian-Americans went to college then. You took up a trade. There was so much work, and not just for barbers. All the factories needed the trades. You could make a good living."
First you had to get through Wright Tech, Anthony said.
"It was strict. You wore a jacket and tie to class and a uniform to shop," he said. "We really got trained. We practiced on the kids in the school — on Tuesdays we cut the plumbers' hair, on Wednesdays, we cut the electricians."
When Vinny arrived in 1984, it was still strict and the trades were still in demand.
"A lot of kids couldn't get in to their first choice for a trade," Vinny said. "They had to go with their second choice."
It was the same when Cabrina got there two years later.
"Most of the girls were in cosmetology or fashion design," she said. "A few took drafting and blueprint. They had a program that let you go to work in your senior year."
But it was about that time when Wright Tech began to go downhill. The job market was demanding trade workers with high-tech skills. The state, which had neglected the building for years, did not update course offerings.
Stamford Public Schools, however, started magnet programs in technology, drawing students from Wright Tech. Enrollment slipped so much that the state offered tech-school principals $1,000 bonuses for enrolling students.
Principals sent students to Wright Tech who failed to make it into Bullard-Havens Tech in Bridgeport. Many had elementary-level reading skills, so the state lowered Wright Tech's admission standards. Test scores fell, discipline declined, teachers transferred, enrollment fell farther.
In 2005, the Legislature authorized a renovation, but then-Gov. Jodi Rell refused to release the money. In 2008, the recession hit and, a year later, Rell closed Wright Tech — the only time that's happened in Connecticut.
It was reported at the time that the Rell administration hoped to sell the Wright Tech property to a developer for $10 million, even though Stamford gave the state the 18 acres expressly for a technical school.
Finally, in 2010, the Legislature approved $90 million to renovate Wright Tech. It reopened in 2014 to freshmen, and Vinny Rizzi's son — Anthony Rizzi's grandson and namesake — was one.
The school now has about 430 students, and there's a waiting list again, a spokesman said.
In June, the younger Anthony Rizzi will be in the first class to graduate the reopened Wright Tech.
It's another tradition.
"I was in the first class to graduate from what was then the new Wright Tech in Scalzi Park," Anthony said. The original building was on Schuyler Avenue. "Now my grandson is in the first graduating class of this Wright Tech."
The younger Anthony, though, will be a plumber, not a barber.
It's all good, Vinny said.
"One of my customers is a doctor. He tells me, 'My plumber makes more money than I do. And he's home for dinner with his family,'" Vinny said.
He hopes the same will be true for his daughter, Danielle, a Wright Tech ninth-grader studying health technology.
"She wants to be a nurse or anesthesiologist," Vinny said. "Those are good jobs."
So is being a barber, Anthony said.
"I like the interaction with people," he said. "They tell you, 'My wife did this. My kid did that.' They ask for your advice. They confide in you."
His son agreed.
"I like talking to people — CEOs, kids just out of college," Vinny said. "All kinds."
Cabrina likes it for the same reason.
"With some clients, it's almost like you're part of their family," she said. "You do their wedding. You give their child their first haircut. You go to their home when they are elderly. You get invited to their family events. It's nice."
Vinny said many of his friends who work in the trades were able to buy houses when they were in their 20s. Cabrina said many of her friends who began working in high school stayed in Stamford, where they'd established a clientele.
So Wright Tech has continued to build the city's middle class, as graduates have said for generations. The Rizzis said customers who are new to Stamford often ask them if they know a mason, an electrician, an auto mechanic, and they always have someone to recommend — usually a Wright Tech grad.
There's a particular perk to the Rizzis' trade, Cabrina said.
"We'll never be taken over by computers," she said. "No robot can do our job."
Information from: The Advocate, http://www.stamfordadvocate.com