When Julius Pardi developed a new way to manufacture porcelain insulators at General Electric back in 1902, the bosses at the Schenectady plant must have been pleased with themselves for giving the 17-year-old Italian immigrant a job.
Pardi's skill at making better insulators, however, only scratched the surface of his creativity. In his 47 years with GE, he continued to impress everyone with the work his hands produced, not only on the factory floor, but also in the art studio.
"I knew he was an artist because we had a few of his pieces around the house when I was growing up," said Larry Pardi, Julius's grandson, a Rotterdam native and Altamont resident. "But I didn't discover the extent of his talents until my own father passed away in 2004. Then I talked to my cousins, and we started gathering up all of his possessions, and he had quite a bit. He was an incredible artist."
Some of Pardi's best work is on display now at the Italian American Heritage Museum on Central Avenue in Albany and will be there for public viewing through the month of May. Along with some of his best porcelain work, there are sketches, paintings and a series of bas-relief sculptures. There are also images of Pardi and old newspaper articles telling the story of a 17-year-old who left his family's pottery business in Castelli, Italy, to come to America around the turn of the century.
Donna Kuba, one of Pardi's granddaughters who just happens to have spent much of her life working in the exhibit design business, took the lead in putting the family's display together.
"He really was a renaissance man," said Kuba, who lives in New Jersey and credits Larry Pardi and his wife, Nancy, for doing much of the legwork in getting the family collection together. "He was into engineering and all different kinds of art, and he also wrote music and poetry. His talent was really amazing, and I didn't know that side of him when he was alive."
Pardi began working in his father's pottery studio at the age of 7, so at the age of 17, when he landed in Brooklyn, he was already a master potter. Within the year, he saw an opportunity in the porcelain business at GE's plant in Schenectady and headed north. The field of high-voltage insulators -- an important part of the burgeoning electrical business -- was in its infancy during the first two decades of the 20th century, and Pardi was one of the men who fostered its growth. In 1919, he became an assistant foreman and was promoted to foreman of Building 68 in 1934.
"By the time he was managing the porcelain department, overseeing all of that production, he was being asked more and more to create plaques, vases and all kinds of memorabilia for the high muckety-mucks when they retired," said Kuba. "I think they kept him pretty busy doing real artwork."
In October of 1922, when Thomas Edison visited the plant in Schenectady after a long absence, Pardi was asked to produce a large plaque honoring the legendary inventor. With just a week to complete the project, what he came up with was a 6-foot long bas-relief sculpture that included a likeness of Edison in the center, flanked by images of an incandescent lightbulb and a bipolar dynamo. The location of Pardi's tribute to Edison is unknown.
"It's pretty sizeable, so it's possible they took it off a wall somewhere and it broke," said miSci senior curator Chris Hunter. "That's my supposition, based on absolutely no evidence. But he did a great job of creating these big, bronze plaques that went to executives as special gifts. I don't know where the Edison bas-relief is, but I have people out looking for it. Pardi created some wonderful things, and after he retires, you didn't see any of those big awards being handed out in the GE newsletters."
After his retirement in 1949, Pardi served three years as a consultant, designing tools for the American Locomotive Company. He died in 1961 at the age of 76, but before he did, he left a lasting impression on his grandchildren, who along with Pardi and Kuba, include Suzie O'Brien of Schenectady and Dyahn DiLallo Vonie of Ballston Lake. Both of those women also contributed some of their family artifacts to the collection on display. Pardi, just 6 when his grandfather died, remembers him pinching his cheek with every greeting, but it is Kuba, the oldest cousin, who remembers Julius the best.
"To tell the truth, we did think he was a little bit eccentric," said Kuba, who grew up in Goose Hill, not too far from where Pardi lived on Ravine Road. "We knew he was an artist. We just never realized how good he was back then. My mother was his only daughter, and he used to come to our house every night. He lived over by the crest of the hill near Hillside [Avenue], and he never drove, so he was always walking back and forth for years and years.
"He'd come for dinner, and he would pinch our cheek and say, 'how you doing grandaddy?'" remembered Kuba. "He called us granddaddy, and he never lost his Italian accent. There was one time he gave me a birthday card and it said, 'happy birthday to my niece, from grandfather Julius.' My mother joked that at least he knew who he was, but then we checked and we discovered that in Italian, the word for granddaughter (nipotina) was nearly the same as niece (nipote). I was only 14 when he died, so I don't really think I knew him that well.
"We all wish we could have got to know him better."