Lou Teti, Partner at West Chester-based law firm MacElree Harvey, talks with VISTA Today about growing up in Coatesville, developing a strong work ethic working in his parents’ “Happy Days” store and luncheonette, and ending up at Dickinson College while the Vietnam War raged in Southeast Asia.
After college, Lou discusses landing his first job as an accountant and eventually going to law school and becoming a tax attorney, the people who influenced his life, and how his parents’ advice helped him and his wife Joann maneuver through the adoption process.
Where were you were born and where did you grow up, Lou?
I was born in Bryn Mawr and I grew up in Coatesville. My mother was from Devon and my dad from Coatesville. They married in 1942 and had me in 1950. I have one older brother, Chip, who also has resides with his family here in Chester County.
How did your parents meet?
My Mom’s relatives had a very popular Italian restaurant in Devon called “Martini’s”, on Lancaster Avenue near the horse show grounds. My Dad’s family was from Coatesville, and they operated a family store there, and they knew the DiMartini family. The families got together for various occasions, and Mom met my father at one of those gatherings. All of my grandparents were born in the province of Abruzzi in Italy, and I am very proud of my Italian heritage.
What memories do you have of growing up in Coatesville?
Coatesville was an absolutely wonderful place to grow up. No regrets, and I wouldn’t change a thing about my childhood experiences. Being raised in the 50’s and 60’s was so much different than it is now. We didn’t think about security, locking doors, or when we should be home. I can remember Mom just saying, ‘be home for dinner.’ We’d play at the local playground, get home for dinner, and then we would go back out and play until our curfew.
What do you remember about the store your parents ran in Coatesville?
Mom and Dad operated a store in Coatesville with my uncle John and aunt Jennie, on the corner of Chester and Main Streets. The store, known as “Teti’s Cut-Rate”, had a soda fountain with nine stools and about ten wooden booths.
Kids would come after school and hang out there playing the jukebox and enjoying an ice cream cone or sundae. If you remember, the show “Happy Days,” you’ll be able to picture “Teti’s”.
It was also a luncheonette, serving breakfast and lunch, open 7 days a week from 7:00 AM to 11:00 PM. The store sold penny candy, cigarettes, ice cream, newspapers, patent and over-the-counter medicines. My parents operated the store until the end of 1982. It is still there, and is now known as “Willie’s”.
Dad worked seven days a week, 364 days a year. The only day he took off was Christmas, and one week in the summer for a family vacation in Ocean City, New Jersey. I developed an incredible work ethic as a result of watching Dad and Mom in that store. My Mom was right beside him all the time, and they worked very hard to provide for my brother and me. As the saying goes, we didn’t have everything, but we had everything we needed and it was a very good, simple life.
We lived in a row home, two doors from the store. I went to Catholic school for eight years – Saint Cecilia’s – which was a two block walk away from my house. When I attended Coatesville High School, it was just two blocks in the other direction. Everything that we needed was within walking distance.
Did you play any sports when you were younger?
In Coatesville, basketball was ingrained in all of us. I enjoyed basketball, but didn’t have the skill level since our teams always attracted incredible talent. We played intramural ball and just followed all of the high school games as fans. It seemed as though the entire town turned out for all the games, home and away.
My sport was baseball! I played in high school and then I played intramural baseball in college. It is still my greatest passion to this day. We have full season tickets to the Phillies home games. As our sons were growing up, we tried to visit as many of the 30 major league ballparks as possible. We got to 19 of them thus far, and I am hopeful that we will eventually be able to see games in the other 11 parks. It is a great way to build some super family memories.
When I was in law school at Temple, I would attend classes in the morning, take the subway to work at a law firm part-time in Center City, and then take the subway down to the Vet to sell beer at the ballpark. It was a great experience, and a wonderful way to stay in shape, get rid of the stress of law school, and follow the Phillies.
What was your first job?
My first job was in our family store with my parents, helping them wait on customers and stock the shelves before and after school. As I got older and needed to make additional money, the family of my best childhood friend, John Filoromo, owned the Coatesville Coca Cola Bottling Works, and I was fortunate to work there for many years.
The plant was just a block away from my house, and I began working there when I was fourteen. I worked hard – as I learned from my parents – and I worked there every summer in high school, college, and even law school. I worked in the plant where Coke was bottled, and where I also worked in the pre-mix department where we made ready to drink soda kept in metal tanks which was used for off-site locations like town and county fairs and special events. I also drove the trucks that delivered these tanks to the county fairs in the summertime. It was a great job, and the Filoromo family gave me a huge opportunity.
What lessons did you take from those jobs that stay with you today?
The thing that comes to mind immediately is the work ethic. If I worked hard, I got paid back – not just monetarily. I gained a pride in what I did, regardless of the level of employment I had attained. Whether it’s manual labor, selling beverages at the ballpark, or the practicing law, it works the same way in whatever I do. The experience and satisfaction I receive is directly related to the amount of effort I put in.
How does your work ethic back then compare to how you approach your work today?
It’s almost a Catch-22. I don’t know when to stop! Even now, I get into the office early and stay late. I am methodical and meticulous. Some would call me a bit of a perfectionist. I’ve learned along the way that no one is perfect, and the sooner I recognized that, the better I did and the better I understood the workplace. When you try to be a perfectionist, you not only put that on yourself, but you put it on the people you’re working with as well. I try hard to remember that, but it is not always easy.
What kind of music were you listening to in high school?
I listened to a lot of what we now call “oldies.” At the time, I was listening to primarily doo wop and Motown music, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and folk rock like Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. That is still the music that I enjoy today.
I attended Dickinson College from 1968 to 1972, and during summer before I left for school, we witnessed the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, the Chicago Democratic Convention, and all of the political unrest which accompanied the Vietnam War. There was just a lot turmoil, and it was a stressful and challenging time to be in college. The music was very reflective of the times and what was going on.
Why did you choose Dickinson College?
I always wonder that myself! I certainly don’t regret the decision. Dickinson is a small liberal arts school and it was academically challenging. I applied to four schools – Lafayette, Notre Dame, Villanova, and Dickinson. I was a “homebody”, and I didn’t really want to go that far away. I received a scholarship to Notre Dame, but it felt like it was on the other side of the world. My parents were not excited about me going that far away. Villanova seemed to be too close. Plus, I had some family history at Dickinson, since my cousin John was a freshman there at the time, and his father also graduated from Dickinson.
Dad was the oldest of six. He went to West Chester State Teachers’ College for one year, but then his father told him that they needed him at the store in Coatesville, so Dad respected that decision and stayed home to help run the store and support his family. Mom was the second oldest of ten, and she had a very similar story; she went through tenth grade but her father needed her to work at the restaurant and the adjacent grocery store that they owned.
My parents supported me in whatever I decided to do, with unconditional love. They did not have any experience with the college selection process, and it was all new to us. That’s why I relied primarily upon my cousin John and his experience at Dickinson.
Did you enjoy your time at Dickinson?
Yes, I did. I got involved in politics, was involved in the Student Senate, and was president of my class. I had a lot of great professors in my political science major and economics minor, many of whom had a great impact on my ultimate career decisions.
When I was in college, the Vietnam War was in full swing. We were one of the first classes with numbers for the draft lottery. My number was 226 – I’ll never forget that. Students around me were getting drafted out of college and into the War.
I was a sophomore in college when the Kent State shootings occurred in May 1970. Dickinson and a lot of other colleges were experiencing high tension and political unrest at the time, and many of them closed for some time. The President of Dickinson got us together the night of the Kent State shootings, and announced that we were all going home – no final exams. I don’t have any grades for that semester – just “passes” – because we did not take any finals. They just sent the entire student body home.
What did you do after graduation?
I graduated in May, 1972 without a job. I took a few accounting classes for my Economics minor, so the Monday after graduation, I hopped on a train to Center City with a bunch of resumes, and I went door to door to the “Big Eight” accounting firms. It was seen as quite naïve, but I always believed that you should seize the moment and make the most of any opportunity. I just went in and asked to see the personnel person at each firm. Some laughed, and most told me they couldn’t hire me, because I had limited accounting experience and was so late to the game.
Out of that experience though, I did get a job at a small accounting firm on City Line Avenue. Then, three months later, I got a call from one of the big 8 firms that I had previously visited – Lybrand – and they offered me a full-time job, immediately doubling my salary! That was when gasoline was 32 cents per gallon, so it was all relative.
That job really influenced the position I have today, because I took a liking to the tax side of accounting. After a while, and after enough people suggested that I go to law school, I decided to apply again. I was admitted to Temple Law School, and that’s where I decided to go, since I was living in the Philadelphia area. I credit Temple Law with giving me one of my biggest breaks and forming who I am today. I attended day school full-time for my law degree, and then Temple Law part-time at night for my Masters in Tax Law, while I was working as an associate attorney in West Chester.
When you look back on the last forty years of your career, Lou, who gave you your big break?
I will always start by saying my parents. Their work ethic was instilled in me very early on. They taught me the importance of family, faith and respect for others.
Gladys Worth, my high school advisor, got me involved in Student Council. I had incredible experiences as student council president, and even had the opportunity to travel across the country on a bus with 20 other student leaders to address hundreds of other student council members and advisors in Seattle in the 10th grade. My advisor pushed me to be the best version of myself, to have confidence in myself, and not to be afraid to pursue my goals.
I credit Temple Law School with giving me a forum to learn and grow on campus as a future lawyer. I clerked for one year for President Judge Dominic T. Marrone in Chester County, and he introduced me to pretty much every lawyer who entered his courtroom in 1977. That’s how became acquainted with MacElree Harvey, his former firm.
After 4 ½ years, I was recruited out of MacElree because of my tax background, and I went to work with Malcolm and Riley. It was the largest firm in the county when I was there. I spent five years there, and that’s where I began building my own client base. I then had the urge to go out on my own. I was thirty-six years old at the time, and my wife, Joann, and I had not yet had any children. I lived in Exton – this was 1987 – and I was very active in a Rotary Club that we had just started, as well as the Exton Chamber. I started my own practice on January 1, 1987 and I was the first full-time lawyer in Exton at the time. It was challenging, but I loved every minute of it. We started a Young Lawyers Division in the early 80’s in Chester County, and I became chairmen of that group.
In the early 90’s, I served as President of the Chester County Bar Association, and I became involved with the State Bar as well. In 1995, while I was a sole practitioner, I was elected as President-Elect of the State Bar, and was set to serve in 1999-2000. I also served on the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania for six years, serving as chairman in 2004. It was difficult to balance my workload with all the traveling around to the different counties required of the State Bar President. That’s when I decided to merge back into MacElree Harvey.
After speaking with John Featherman, Bill Gallagher, and my other partners at the time, we agreed to a merger, and I stayed in our Exton office until 2004, when I moved back to the West Chester office. That’s where I practice today.
What are the challenges and opportunities in front of you, Lou?
I am still very involved at MacElree Harvey. The word “retire” is hard for me even to say. We all work on keeping the firm strong in all areas of practice, and bringing in new, young lawyers, as well as experienced “lateral hires”, to keep the firm fresh and able to address all client needs. I am also working to develop a transition plan, so as I start to reduce my hours down the road, I will that know my clients will be served well. My clients have become like family, and I want to be sure they get the same attention and service to which they have become accustomed.
Our firm has a strong and ongoing strategic plan. We operate as a business, and we have a CEO (who is not a lawyer) at the helm, and she does an amazing job at managing our firm so that the attorneys can devote our time and energy to practicing law. We are always evaluating our strategic plan, and I am excited about the future of MacElree Harvey. We have outstanding lawyers, paralegals and staff, all of whom work very hard to make our firm a great place to work.
One of the challenges to the legal practice is the Internet. We talk with our clients about the “value added” of looking at and analyzing their business and personal dealings in a “three-dimensional way”, rather than just filling out an online form.
I really want to find more time to devote to philanthropy and non-profits in the Chester County area. I am involved in several nonprofit Boards including the Chester County Community Foundation and Paoli Hospital. There are some incredible non-profits that do some amazing work for various worthy needy recipients. I hope that as I transition my practice, I will be able to spend more time being engaged with non-profits and encouraging friends and clients to include charitable gifts in their estate plans.
Finally, Lou, what is the best piece of advice you ever received?
When my wife, Joann, and I were starting our family, it was a challenging road. We were fortunate and blessed to adopt wonderful, amazing twin sons, Jeff and Ryan. This process reminded me a lot of the advice Dad and Mom had given me – work hard, always appreciate your blessings, be kind, respect others, and don’t take anything for granted.
Mom always reminded me to treat people the way you want to be treated. I never forgot that, and it affects the way that I’ve lived my life. When we adopted our sons, Joann and I learned to be very grateful for our family, our health, and our blessings.
Another piece of advice I hear regularly is “let go and let God.” You don’t have control over anyone but yourself. God has a plan for all of us, and the key is to have faith to let go and follow that plan. I have had many blessings in my life, for which I am forever thankful.
Publisher’s Note: Laura Wagoner contributed to this profile.