How A Marsh Came By Millions A Quiet Man's Legacy Will Soon Become A Nature Center.

Posted: January 29, 1995

Antonio Cusano kept his bedsheets in an icebox. And more than $2 million in the bank.

He loved animals, he said in his will, and he loved his country.

And so when he died in 1993, the Delaware County factory worker left almost all his fortune to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Federal officials considered using some of the money to re-roof historic Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

They considered using some at the national park at Valley Forge.

But instead, they decided to plunk the entire $2.47 million gift into the mud of Tinicum Marsh.

And, those who knew him say, Cusano would have been delighted.

Last Monday in Center City, the first meeting was held to plan the $5 million environmental education center that the $2.47 million will help build at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, which borders Philadelphia International Airport.

There are two stories here.

One is about how the money meandered from the will to the marsh.

The other is about the man who decided to bestow his millions on the protectors of Tinicum's turtles and frogs and skunks.

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Antonio Cusano was 85 when he died Feb. 12, 1993, at Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Upland, not far from his Chester Pike home in the Leiperville section of Ridley Township.

"When people see an old bachelor," Peter Fizzano said in an interview one evening last week, "everybody thinks he's got money.

"We knew he had money."

But, he said, "he never lived a life that you would think he had money."

Cusano worked most of his life at the old General Electric plant in Southwest Philadelphia, Fizzano said, but no one close to him was quite sure just what he did there.

Fizzano runs a trucking business across the road from the Cusano home, which he inherited when Cusano died.

"It's like an old farmhouse," Fizzano said. "There was not even a refrigerator until the last year" of Cusano's life.

When Cusano was bedridden with cancer of the pancreas and could no longer walk up the road to eat, Fizzano said, the refrigerator was brought in.

"He had a metal icebox, but he was not using it. It was for (storing) sheets and pillowcases."

Does that suggest he was strange?

Perhaps. Frugal, certainly.

"He was a heck of a guy," Fizzano said. "I'm 69. My whole family knew him, the whole town. . . .

"I used to bring him up the house. My mother used to cook for him. Spaghetti and ravioli."

In later years, Cusano could have used some of that home cooking.

"He never cooked at home," Fizzano said. "He used to go to Burger King, Wawa or Peewee's Diner," a diner that no longer exists.

"He would go up to Burger King in the morning, (have a bite,) then get a couple sandwiches for his dog."

And the millions?

"He did tell you he had some stocks in different places," Fizzano said. But he didn't tell you much more.

"With Tony, you didn't get too much out of him. He was a private person.

"Try to talk to him about private business, he'd change the subject, talk about football, baseball."

Jack Malone began renting a house from Cusano in 1970. When the old man died, he left the house to Malone.

"Tony was more like a dad to me," Malone said, "than a landlord."

Malone is 68 and, like Fizzano, was almost a generation away from having grown up with Cusano.

But he thought he knew him well.

"He had a TV. I think he turned it off around 1975, 1978."

Owned a car?

"I don't know. I know he had a driver's license, at one time."

Any creature comforts?

"Tony was the kind of a guy, he was very content to sit in the kitchen and listen to his radio and read the books and listen to opera."

After Cusano was injured when a car hit him near his home in 1990, Malone would take him breakfast every day.

"He never used the stove . . . only just to make coffee."

And what about Tinicum Marsh?

"He used to take walks down there," Malone said, "before it got built up."

Before I-95 ripped through. Before housing ate into the marshland.

When it was still country.

So how did the millions get to the marshes?

Cusano's will never mentioned Tinicum.

He did, however, try to explain why he decided to leave the millions he had amassed to the federal government.

Gregory Mallon, the lawyer and district justice who helped write Cusano's will, said that the key section in the will stated Cusano was making the bequest because "I do not have any real close family still alive and because this country has been good to me, allowing me to earn a nice living and have a comfortable home."

The bequest itself, which the will stated "might seem a little unusual," directed that most of his estate be given "to the Treasury of the United States of America, with the specific direction that this gift be turned over to the United States Department of the Interior and that said department use this gift as it deems appropriate in its sole discretion, keeping in mind, however, my love of animals and my love of country."

Soon after Cusano's death, Mallon phoned a lawyer at the regional office of the Interior Department, in Boston.

Mallon, who was executor of the Cusano estate, said he told the lawyer "it would be nice to keep (the gift) in the Southeast Pennsylvania area."

"There was some discussion about re-roofing Independence Hall, about some work to be done at Valley Forge.

"Also about Tinicum Marsh."

Through the 1980s, Mallon's courtroom had been across Chester Pike from Cusano's home, he and Cusano had become friends, and he thought he knew what the old man would have wanted.

Tinicum Marsh.

So, Mallon said, Interior officials decided to spend it at Tinicum, providing that $2.5 million be raised in private matching funds.

Interior officials said they expected the money would be raised before ground is broken in two years.

One afternoon last week, Dick Nugent, manager of the wildlife refuge, stood on a rise formed by landfill from the redevelopment of neighboring Eastwick decades ago and pointed to where the $5 million structure is likely to be built.

Above the 100-year flood plain. On high ground.

It will be headquarters for his 10-person staff, which has worked out of nearby rented offices since the wildlife refuge opened in 1972.

And it will be an environmental education center to replace the tiny block building now on the refuge.

"And," Nugent said of the new structure, "we're not using one dollar of taxpayer money."

Thanks to a working man who put his bedsheets into his icebox and quietly tucked away his millions.

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