One Columbia couple knows better than most how events of the past can shape the future. Paola and Eligio Maoli are native Italians who can trace their lineage back hundreds of years. Natives of Rome, the Maolis might still be in Italy. Instead, the economy changed, and the Maoli family sought a new life in a new world. They spent their first 19 years in California before moving to the Palmetto State.
Prior to the Italian revolutionary wars of the mid-1800s, Italy was a collection of independent states, including the Kingdoms of Sicily and Naples, which encompassed the island of Sicily and much of Italy’s “boot,” curving up to the east of Rome. Each had its own dialects and politics, and most were ruled by larger nations, such as Spain, France, and Austria. Napoleon Bonaparte first sowed the seeds of Italian unity.
While inhabiting Italian territories like Tuscany and the Papal States, Napoleon’s officers mingled with the Italian elite and spread the novel idea of a people governing itself. It was an idea that spread widely. Some Italians wanted to unify Italy under the pope, others favored a monarchy, and still others wanted a parliamentarian government. The 1820s saw widespread unrest. A major revolt in Sicily on Jan. 12, 1848, started a series of uprisings and then wars that ignited the peninsula. Unification in Italy was not achieved until 1870. It was a monarchy until the Italian citizens voted to become a republic in June 1946.
The Maoli family lived in the Abruzzo region east of Rome in Cittaducale. Before the revolution, they belonged to what was the Kingdom of Naples and held the title of marquis. The family lineage was in the same area long before that, in fact from the time of Caesar Augustus, who reigned from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. While many family records were destroyed in a fire, the Maolis have a business contract dated April 27, 1611, signed by the sons of Cesare Maoli, as well as a family tree traced to the same time. With the unification of Italy, their title from the Kingdom of Naples was no longer recognized since it was incorporated into Italy. Pointing to the Maoli crest, Eligio says, “We have balls at the top of the crown instead of the maple leaves of a marquis because we were unable to claim the title after the mid-1800s.” However, they did receive recognition of their nobility by heraldic decree signed by King Vittorio Emanuele III, the King of Italy, dated Dec. 31, 1930.
Post-unification, the Maoli family prospered. Around 1875, Eligio’s great-grandfather, Giuseppe Maoli, decided to invest in agricultural land near Rome. They owned estates of land that included mountains. “One of my great-uncles, Eligio, married a countess from the city of L’Aquila. Her family owned Monte Terminillo. In 1910, she decided it was useless because most of the winter it was full of snow, so she sold it,” says Eligio with a rueful smile. Monte Terminillo is now one of the well-known ski resorts in Italy and is popular for hiking in the summers as well.
The Maolis raised a lot of sheep. Because the climate in Rome and the areas nearby rival Columbia’s famous heat and humidity, they moved the sheep to the mountains in June and returned in November. In addition to raising sheep, the Maolis produced everything from wheat to peaches. Their milk and a special cheese were sold to wholesalers in the city of Rome. The Maolis also made pecorino cheese they sold to local delis, and they produced wine, but only for themselves.
Paola’s heritage in Naples goes back to at least the 1600s as well, with her DNA test pointing to a similar ancient Roman timeline as Eligio’s. Her great-great-uncle, Carlo Nota, was a royal chronicler in the 19th century for King Vittorio Emanuelle III as well as a judge of the supreme court. He was made a baron by the king.
Paola grew up in Rome, where her father, Mario Nota, was also born. Bianca Maria, her mother, known as “Maby,” was born in Padova. The two met in Rome during World War II and married in 1944. Paola studied at the University of Rome, where she earned her law degree, a family tradition. Eligio also studied at the University of Rome, earning his doctorate in biology.
Paola and Eligio met through Paola’s brother, Carlo Nota. “They were in a group that played soccer together,” says Paola of Eligio and Carlo. “One summer, when it was just Eligio and Carlo left single, Carlo decided it was okay for Eligio and me to meet.” The Notas went to their home in Anzio each summer, and Carlo invited Eligio in August of 1974; his matchmaking succeeded. Paola and Eligio were married in May 1976 at the Church of San Bonaventura al Palatino in Rome.
Not long afterward, circumstances changed for the Maoli family. Eligio’s father, Giuseppe Maoli, recognized that his business had become quite large. He did not feel it would prosper much longer. Also, the communists and socialists were taking over, and there was a lot of fear. Giuseppe, well known in political circles, was a conservative.
“A lot of people left then, including us,” says Eligio. “He decided in 1974 that we would move to the United States and started setting things in motion.” Giuseppe planned two years in advance, organizing the sale of the family assets and scouting out the best new home. Eligio’s parents, Giuseppe and Victoria Maoli, moved to San Francisco on Oct. 2, 1976, along with Eligio’s sisters, Anna, Rossella, and Alessandra. First, they were green card holders, then they became citizens in 1981.
After settling in San Francisco, the Maolis opened a commercial real estate company. Eligio got his broker’s license and managed properties, but the business was not prospering as it should have. “In 1979, an international television channel, KTSF 26, had Italian programming, but it wasn’t very good. I called the Italian contact, Franco Brescia, and said, ‘I’m Italian with a Ph.D. in biology and my wife has a law degree, so why don’t we talk.’”
The Maolis swiftly entered the world of television. Every Sunday night, Paola gave the news report, and Eligio reported on sports. Eligio arranged for satellite broadcasts of Italian soccer games to be taped in New York City. He paid a courier to take the tape to the airport, where it was shipped by cargo to San Francisco. Eligio picked it up and was able to play the second half of the match on television, a feat that made the station popular and gained it many sponsors.
“Italians find a way,” says Paola of Eligio’s ingenuity. He rented time on stations in Sacramento and Los Angeles as well. Eventually the national Italian TV system, RAI Italia, came to the United States and demanded a lot of money to broadcast Italian soccer, which Eligio and his partner Franco refused to pay. The stations were flooded with complaints, so RAI Italia gave them a deal they could live with. The great thing was that Eligio and Franco only paid to receive the signal and record it, and they could play the whole match instead of just half. Viewers loved it.
While Eligio worked in real estate and coordinated television broadcasts, Paola was busy with little ones. Emanuela arrived in 1977, followed by sons Gianandrea in 1979 and Francesco in 1992. “I was always active in their schools, volunteering with the schools,” says Paola. She made a lot of friends that way, including Gaeley Sergio, who was married to Max Sergio who was also from Rome. Emanuela, Gianandrea, and Alex, Gaeley’s son, went to the same nursery school, which is where they met and became friends.
Gaeley’s husband, Max, is an Italian from Rome and moved to American after meeting his American wife, Gaely. They lived in New York for several years before moving to the Marin County area in California. Max, who has a Ph.D. in economics, also attended a two-week course in New York on how to start and run a video store. Eligio and Max became partners in the venture. After jumping the hurdle of financing such a then-unique business
scheme, they opened their first video store, called Videola, in San Rafael. On opening day, they had videos but no furniture, so the men made a table out of carton boxes and a door repurposed from someone’s garbage bin. “The first day, Gaeley and I came to bring them lunch and it was a mess! I asked Eligio how much money they’d made and he said, ‘$50.’ I asked, ‘How are you going to pay the rent?’”
Paola’s question was quickly answered. People started to come into the store because they were curious about the novel concept of renting movies. “We charged $4 to $5 per movie,” Eligio says. “We wanted to be able to pay for the movie within three weeks.” Patrons earned store bucks called the “Videollars” which sported a photo of Eligio and Max. “They couldn’t spend them anywhere else,” says Eligio with a grin. After a year, they were so successful that Eligio and Max opened three more stores between San Rafael and San Francisco. It was the first real chain video store in the area, and it was privately owned. “We were the first to computerize our stores and purchase special software,” Eligio says.
Competition came in the form of Blockbuster, which did all it could to run Videola out of business. First, it decided to rent everything for $1. “So, Max and I opened memberships and rented their movies for $1, then took them to our store and rented them for $4,” says Eligio. Blockbuster was not amused. The conversation went something like this:
Blockbuster: “We’re blocking you. You can’t rent from us anymore.”
Eligio and Max: “Then give us back the money for our memberships.”
Blockbuster: “Okay, you can come back, but only as a customer. You can’t rent out our movies through your store.”
Eligio and Max: “Or what?”
Blockbuster: “We’ll be very upset.”
Eligio and Max continued renting Blockbuster movies until finally Blockbuster gave up and increased their price to $5. Videola stayed in business until 2005. Eligio says, “We knew it was coming to an end. Blockbuster tried to buy us, but their offer was ridiculous. So, we sold everything off, which was better than selling to Blockbuster.” Videola did very well, never losing a dime.
In 1995, circumstances changed for the Maolis again. San Francisco’s high-tech industry brought with it large commercial real estate companies. “We didn’t want to be a small fish in a big pond,” Eligio says. Plus, the atmosphere was not what the Maolis wanted for their children. Anna Alessandrini, Eligio’s sister, and her husband, Walter, already lived in Columbia. Paola and Eligio visited them, landing at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport. “As soon as we arrived, we looked at each other at the same time and said, ‘Maybe we should move here,’” says Paola. And so, they did.
Eligio and Giuseppe decided to venture back into commercial real estate and partnered with John Foster and Al Saad. Their most notable project was the redevelopment of the 1500 block of Main Street where Macy’s was previously located. They built the TD Bank building, originally Carolina First. They also renovated and added floors to the parking garage at the corner of Assembly and Taylor streets. The Maolis researched what the market in Columbia may have needed and were part owners of the Sylvan Building at the corner of Main and Hampton streets. Eligio and Giuseppe had their own projects, too, such as a building in Roswell, Georgia; a medical office building near Lexington Medical Center; and an office building in Middleburg Office Park.
While Eligio and Giuseppe involved themselves in the Columbia commercial real estate market, Paola made a name for herself in tennis. “It’s very popular in South Carolina, and I love it as a sport, so it took me almost no time to make friends,” says Paola of her arrival in Columbia. She was a representative for Etcetera clothing for many years. She also started volunteering for the U.S. Tennis Association on Fernandina Road and was offered a part-time job there. Later, Paola became tennis coordinator for the Cayce Tennis & Fitness Center for six years. Then the Tennis Center of Camden was built, and she was offered the job of director. She won the contract for the Big East collegiate tennis tournament to be played at the Cayce Tennis & Fitness Center, and under her leadership, both the Cayce Tennis & Fitness Center and the Tennis Center of Camden were awarded Outstanding Facility in U.S.A. by the National United States Tennis Association.
In 2005, Eligio transitioned from commercial real estate into what he calls his childhood dream job: law enforcement. He started as a campus police officer, first for Winthrop College and then for Columbia College. From there he went to the South Congaree Police Department and then, in August 2007, became a reserve deputy with the Lexington County Sheriff’s office. “I wanted to work for free to give back to the community and have flexibility in my hours,” says Eligio. He really enjoyed the work. In 2014, he asked if he could work with the fugitive task force, though no reservist had ever worked with this task force before. “I went looking for bad guys, working undercover and driving unmarked cars with another officer until the job was federalized by the U.S. Marshal,” he says. Eligio retired in 2016.
Living in their Columbia home with Annie, their blue Great Dane, Eligio and Paola look back on their move to the United States and to Columbia with satisfaction. “It was good that we moved to California first,” says Eligio. “We didn’t know the lifestyle.”
Paola agrees. “It gave us the advantage to come to Columbia and be comfortable,” she says. “There are more family values here. It was the perfect move.”