Paul Musco's Heart of Gold
Even as he prepares to turn 90, with nine stents and an artificial valve in his heart, white-haired Sebastian P. “Paul” Musco works full time and is still cracking one-liners. He has a favorite about his father, an immigrant from Sicily who raised 10 children during the Great Depression. Dad spent 35 years working in education, Musco deadpans, pausing and jabbing home the punchline – which happens to be the truth. “He was a school janitor.”
Musco’s own academic path is even less sterling – he dropped out of school at 16, lying about his age to join the Navy, which propelled him into the Pacific during World War II. Even so, the self-made multimillionaire, long a leading philanthropist in Newport Beach, now holds three honorary doctorate degrees. His dry humor and strong regard for learning helped him to bond immediately with James L. Doti, the longtime president of Chapman University, another quick-witted son of Italian immigrants.
Of their first conversation, at a birthday party about 10 years ago, Doti says, “Within five minutes, it was like I’d met another brother of mine.” Their common interests even extended to opera. “Our mothers required or forced us to stay at home on Saturday afternoons and listen to the broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York, which were on the radio,” Doti says. “We just hit it off.”
Musco earned a quick invitation to be Doti’s guest at Chapman’s annual fundraising bash, the American Celebration, where scores of costumed students performed a lively revue. As Musco remembers, however, Doti was approached, near the end of the night, by someone who whispered in his ear, and Doti’s face clouded over.
“I said, ‘What happened?’ ” Musco recalls. “He said, ‘We were trying to raise $1 million for the first time, and we’re short $46,000.’ ”
Musco begged to differ. “I said, ‘No, you’ve got it. You’ve got it!’”
That first gift, by Musco and his wife, Marybelle, did more than save the evening. It marked the beginning of the Muscos’ long commitment to helping raise the quality and prestige of the private university in Orange. The latest milestone is the completion of the campus’s $78 million Marybelle and Sebastian P. Musco Center for the Arts, a 1,044-seat performance hall that will showcase student theater as well as opera and professional stage productions.
After word leaked out in a Los Angeles newspaper, Chapman spokeswoman Mary Platt confirmed that the Muscos gave $38 million to help build the hall in addition to leading the money-raising campaign. Students will begin using the building this month or in early December, Platt says, even as acclaimed acoustics expert Yasuhisa Toyota, who did the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, fine-tunes the sound.
Musco’s good friend Plácido Domingo is scheduled to perform alongside renowned soprano Deborah Voigt, who studied at both Chapman and Cal State Fullerton, for the hall’s formal grand opening March 19. Musco remembers first hearing Domingo sing live many years ago at the Met, never imagining that someday he and the great tenor would be pals. They toured the nearly finished Musco Center together in early September, with Domingo breaking into an aria from Verdi’s “La Traviata” – an impromptu performance that was posted on YouTube.
“He’s a wonderful, wonderful man,” Musco says, recalling the day in January, a few years ago, when Domingo called him from Vienna to serenade him with “Happy Birthday.” “He said, ‘I’m singing quietly because it’s 3 o’clock in the morning here.’ ”
Musco is generous with LA Opera. He reports that Domingo, general director of the opera company, maintains an inner circle of major donors whom he calls his “angels.” For $1 million, Musco says, you can become an angel. In a grousing tone, he says, “I could pay the pope less and he’d get me straight to heaven.”
Musco also shells out heavily to other organizations, from schools and public television – he’s a board member of PBS SoCal – to campaigns to fight muscular dystrophy, diabetes and cystic fibrosis. He can do it because of his success with Gemini Industries, a Santa Ana-based precious-metals company that Musco founded more than 40 years ago – and which he still runs. Gemini reclaims platinum, palladium and other elements for firms that engage in complex, high-volume chemical processes, including Chevron, Dow and ExxonMobil.
Years ago, working in collaboration with General Motors, Musco helped develop the ubiquitous catalytic converter for automobiles. He says he has run as many as eight companies at a time. In August, Musco sold Care Communications, a Chicago outfit that manages health care data; and meanwhile, evidence of his Midas touch turned up in Caldwell, Texas, where he acquired acreage for a plant serving the petroleum industry. He struck oil.
“We have the mineral rights – in Texas, you get that,” Musco says. “I made a pledge that every single penny that comes out, when it comes out, will go to my employees and to charity. I don’t need it.”
Why he gives has its roots deep in the past, according to Musco’s identical twin brother, Anthony: “He remembers our childhood.” Their crowded household in Providence, R.I., was steeped in financial hardship, though none of the children really noticed. They had enough to eat, plenty of love, and no awareness – they had no television – that others had more. Their mother, Lucia, a seamstress, made the children’s clothes. Their father, Carmelo, went out on Christmas mornings to find and bring home a tree that some other family had already thrown away, because he could not afford to buy one.
“I remember the first Christmas I ever saw my father cry,” Anthony says. “I got a harmonica and an orange. My brother got one of those tooty-toot things and an apple. I think we were 6 years old. It was tough.”
As teens, the twins worked in a poultry shop, killing and plucking chickens. Paul was the mischievous one, skipping classes, getting into trouble. When Anthony ran for class president of his junior high school, his brother and a friend helped to tabulate the ballots. Anthony miraculously pulled in 42 votes in a class of only 35 students.
The two brothers would become committed family men. Paul met Marybelle, then a secretary, while working for a precious-metals company in Chicago; they now have two children and six grandchildren. Anthony, who lives in Burke, Va., raised five daughters and, since retiring from a long military career, continues to call strikes as one of the nation’s oldest Little League umpires.
Musco’s bond with his twin remains one of the defining facts of his life. They talk via Skype just about every night, with Paul quipping once, when he couldn’t get the camera to work, “For God’s sake, put a mirror in front of you and pretend it’s me.” Paul’s hair is whiter, sitting like a snowcap atop his stocky frame. He also has a tattoo that Anthony does not have – an American eagle, a relic of his military days, on his left forearm, now blurry with age.
“If one of them is ill, the other one will feel it,” Marybelle says of the brothers. “I’ve seen it for years and years.”
Marybelle has been the essential part of Musco’s life for over half a century. In conversation, even when she’s not present, he refers to her constantly. A lover of dance who grew up practicing ballet, folk dance, modern dance and jazz dancing, she also was a capable businesswoman, handling purchasing and accounting and serving as office manager in the early years of Gemini Industries. She remains Musco’s close collaborator both socially and in business and charity.
“We discuss everything that we’re doing and want to do,” Marybelle says. “At home, he always offers to help,” she says. “He’ll help with the dishes, believe it or not. His hobby is work.”
Musco sees no point in striking a golf ball. Though a member of the Newport Beach Country Club for 45 years, he has played the course only four times, he says. He doesn’t own a yacht. A driver whisks him around town in a white Rolls-Royce – the personalized plate says “MUSCO” – but otherwise he lives unpretentiously while carefully calculating where his wealth will achieve the biggest effect.
“He has the most generous heart that I have ever encountered,” says Mel Rogers, who retired in April as CEO of KOCE public television. “He gives away far more than anybody else, percentagewise.”
KOCE’s move to Costa Mesa, where it serves as the flagship for PBS SoCal, required installing a sign atop the building at a time when money was tight. “Paul said he’d pay for it,” Rogers says. “We needed a remote production truck and he stepped up and paid for it.”
Ralph Opacic first met Musco 37 years ago, when he moved out from Virginia hoping to become the next Billy Joel. He was invited to a Thanksgiving dinner at the Muscos’ home. Two decades later, he and the Muscos reconnected at an awards ceremony. By now, Opacic had created the Orange County School of the Arts, an award-winning charter high school in Santa Ana.
The Muscos saw value in the school and became major supporters. They also saw inadequacies in the urban campus – in particular, in the dance studios, somewhat small spaces where routines could be hampered by pillars. Musco gave $4 million and became a driving force – along with Hal and Jeanette Segerstrom, George Argyros, and Martha and James Newkirk – in raising money for a new, U-shaped, 60,000-square foot building housing separate wings for science, music and dance.
The $16 million facility is now the focal point of the campus. Its 14 dance studios, each 2,000 square feet, probably surpass anything at any high school in America, Opacic says. Around the time of Marybelle’s birthday, in May, Musco surprised his wife by announcing before a large crowd that the wing would be named in honor of her lifelong love of dance: The Marybelle Musco Dance Center.
She was asked to step onto the stage, scarcely able to speak. “I was in a catatonic state,” Marybelle remembers. “It made me feel fantastic.”
The building opened just in time for fall classes. Musco is happy.
“I’ve always maintained that the best thing about money is the good you can do with it,” Musco says. “Isn’t it better to give while you’re alive so you can see what your gift has done? And the person who’s a recipient has someone to say thank you to?” Besides, he says, “How many steaks can you eat?”