By Marc Wilson
Bob Ontiveros would come by my office on 47th Avenue in Moline once or twice a month and we’d go to lunch.
He knew I had a back door that (against rules) I kept open in the day time, and he’d quietly slip inside. If I wasn’t in my office, he would go next door into the break room, help himself to a cup of coffee, and wait in my office.
When I came back to my office, I’d find him sitting across from my desk. He’d lift the coffee cup up and say, “You have the best coffee – FREE!”
One day, many years ago, he asked me where I wanted to go for lunch.
I told him I’d like to go to one of my favorite Mexican food restaurants, El Mexicano.
“I can’t get any of my other friends or wife to go there with me. Will you go with me?”
A big smile lit up his face.
“Let’s go!” he said.
We jumped in his car and turned onto 16th Street.
“This place is hard to find,” I told him. “We may need to use your GPS.”
Bob glanced at me with a smile. “I know the way.”
We got to the top of the hill and started down toward the Floreciente neighborhood.
“I always get lost around here,” I said. “Maybe use the GPS?”
“I know the way,” Bob repeated, again with a smile and a side glance at me. He turned on 12th Avenue until we reached Stephens Park. Then he turned right on 7th Street.
Bob quickly found Railroad Avenue, and pulled in front of the restaurant, and parked his car.
We walked into the restaurant/grocery store.
I could have been with Barack Obama for all the attention we got.
Bob waved at everyone, and everyone waved and/or smiled. He talked to everyone.
Bob was a legend.
After we ate, Bob said, “Let’s take a little walk.”
We went a couple of blocks before Bob stopped us in front of an old two-story wooden house.
Maybe 1,200 square feet.
“See that house?”
“That’s where I grew up — 12 kids, two parents and my grandmother. That’s where I got my start.”
He came a long way, but he never forgot his roots.
He knew the way.
Bob Ontiveros’ maternal grandparents, Cirilo and Delores Rocha fled to the United States in 1918 in the midst of horrific conditions during the Mexican Revolution, settling – after brief stops at Cook’s Point in Iowa — in the west end, now Floreciente neighborhood, in Moline, Illinois.
Cirilo’s and Delores’ daughter, Josephine, married John Ontiveros, whose parents had fled from Guadalajara, Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, arriving in the United States in 1918.
Bob was their second child, born in 1938 while World War II was beginning and when the national unemployment rate was 19 percent – and probably double that in his neighborhood in the west end of Moline
Economic conditions improved during World War II, but, Bob said: “As a child, if you wanted new shoes you had to find the money. You had to work hard for it. You should have seen me as a kid walking down the block, asking people if I could cut their grass or clean their garage.”
His first job, at about age 8, was picking onions in the Pleasant Valley, Iowa area. “My older brother and I walked 12 blocks to the bridge over the Mississippi River where a truck picked up the kids – almost all Mexican-Americans – who would work the onion fields.
“I was always small, and not much bigger than the bushel basket I dropped the onions in,” he told Fourth Wall Films in an interview. He also worked as a child farm laborer picking tomatoes and strawberries.
“As a kid, if you wanted something, you had to work for it,” he said. “Our parents didn’t have any money to spare.” Much of his earnings went to his grandmother, who managed the family’s finances.
His father worked as a tool and die specialist at the roundhouse at the Rock Island Railroad yard in Silvis. He would be laid off frequently.
“My dad told me ‘the Mexicans are the last ones hired and the first ones fired. Dad looked at layoffs as vacations, but the family suffered.”
Bob loved to work.
He worked as a busboy at the 15th floor restaurant atop the LeClaire Hotel in downtown Moline.
“I worked hard, and I loved to work,” Bob once told me. “I liked the idea of making money and getting ahead.”
Get ahead he did.
After graduating from Moline High, Bob worked his way through Moline Community College, now Blackhawk Community College. (He and his wife, Blenda, gave the college $1 million last year.)
While in college, he met Blenda Crummer, a tall blonde girl from Freeport, Illinois. “My family and friends wondered what I was doing getting mixed up with a short Mexican guy, but they all learned to love him,” she once told me. “My best decision ever!”
They were married 61 years.
In 1974, Bob started selling packaging materials out of the family station wagon, and soon founded Bi-State Packaging.
Through hard work and dogged determination – and great sales skills – Bob’s company grew to the point of needing warehouses throughout the United States, Mexico and Puerto Rico. Bob started separate companies, R&O Specialties and Group O Direct. In 2007, the three companies were merged under the Group O brand, headquartered in Milan, Il.
Today, under the leadership of Bob’s and Blenda’s son, Gregg, Group O is one of the largest Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States. Major clients include AT&T, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Caterpillar, Frito-Lay, Kraft Foods, Microsoft, PepsiCo, and Staples.
The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce ranks Group O as one of the top five Latino-owned businesses in the country.
The company’s annual revenues are over $900 million. With over 1,000 employees, Group O is one of the largest employers in the Quad Cities (behind Deer and Co. and Alcoa/Arconic.)
Bob loved to sell things – anything, and he was great at it.
His son Chris tells this story:
“Dad likes to say, ‘Do me a favor, will you?’
“And of course you answer, ‘Sure, what?”
“Sell something!” And he’d smile the famous Bob Ontiveros smile.
“He never told us what to sell,” Chris added. “He wanted us to find out what the customer wanted, and sell ‘em that. He was always about making the customers happy – and selling them something.”
Bob never forgot his roots, especially the Floreciente neighborhood, especially after he retired as CEO of Group O and became chairman of the company in 1999.
He financed and raised money for a neighborhood Community Health Center, the Moline Boys and Girls Club (including the Ontiveros Teen Center) and the Mercado on Fifth Street, which is run by his granddaughter, Maria.
Bob was especially enthused about the Boys and Girls Club. “I want the kids from my old neighborhood to know how much opportunity there is in this country if you work hard and apply yourself,” Bob once told me. “The United States is truly the land of opportunity.”
Bob also was instrumental in the late 1980 and early 1990s in helping raise some $30 million for the 12,000-seat arena in downtown Moline, originally known as the Mark of the Quad Cities, and now known as the TaxSlayer Center.)
“The Mark is one of my father’s proudest accomplishments.”his son, Chris, told me.
(To me, it’s not the “Mark” or the TaxSlayer Center. I call it the “Bob.”)
Bob was the driving force behind the founding of the Greater Quad Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“I was fortunate to succeed, and I felt it was my duty to give back to the Latino community. That’s why I started the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and why my wife and I are big on funding scholarships,” he said. “Education is the key to success.”
He quietly supported almost all efforts, big and small, to enhance the lives of Quad City residents, especially Mexican-Americans.
His Group O was the sponsor or co-sponsor on many programs and events in the Quad Cities. He and Group O were major backers of all fund-raising efforts connected with Hero Street U.S.A. and other Latino-based events.
Bob has been a major supporter of Fourth Wall Films efforts to produce documentaries about Hero Street U.S.A. in Silvis. Hero Street is famous for having the most combat deaths of any single street in the United States – eight Mexican-American soldiers born to refugees of the Mexican Revolution. He helped pay for the English-to-Spanish language translation of my book, Hero Street U.S.A.
Bob has met and befriended powerful politicians, company executives and major sports figures (golfers Jordan Speith and Jason Duffner help Bob with the Boys and Girls Club).
Bob’s son, Gregg, is a regular participant at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in California. Bob often attended the event, which Gregg once won as the amateur partner.
“I loved meeting and eating with all the celebrities,” he said.
As a successful businessman, entrepreneur and donor, he met and knew high-ranking politicians and leaders. He became a partner in a Chicago-area casino.
But he always knew the way home.
“I was very fortunate,” he said. “Maybe I succeeded in part because I have green eyes, brown hair and pretty light skin. But I know racism continues to be a problem. They say it’s going away – but it’s not. The immigrant struggle continues.
“I took advantage of my opportunities, and now it’s time to give back,” he said after he retired.
All through his life he remained a man with simple tastes.
“Take a look in his closet and you’ll learn a lot about the man,” his son Chris told me. “He has four shirts, four pairs of pants and two pairs of shoes. Nothing else. He’s done so many wonderful things for so many people, but he never did much for himself. He always remembered where he came from.”
He knew the way home.
(Editor’s note: Ontiveros died Feb. 8 at age 83. This article was written by his long-time friend Marc Wilson, author of the award-winning book Hero Street U.S.A.)