There are big families, and then there's Ryan Messano's family.
The 33-year-old Vallejo native is the oldest of 18 siblings, a former nuclear submarine specialist and a new business owner in town.
A self-described eternal optimist, Messano said he inherited his positive attitude in part, from his parents.
"We grew up in Old Glen Cove. We had this big farmhouse. There was a cemetery on the street, and we went to the ball park a lot. It was a wonderful childhood. That's why I don't understand people who say Vallejo is a terrible place. I grew up here, and loved it."
Though he recognizes that some things about the city have changed, Messano said he expects Vallejo to continue improving.
"I believe a place is only as good as the citizens' attitude toward it," he said. "As our attitude toward Vallejo improves, Vallejo will improve."
That outlook works on a larger and a small scale, as well, he said.
"Our perception of the world has an impact on the world," he said. "If someone does 99 bad things to me and one good one, I choose to remember the good one."
Messano's parents, strict Church Of Christ followers, made ends meet with the help of public assistance, though his father worked as a sign salesman. They didn't allow unchaperoned dating or permit TV in the house, which worked out fine for their eldest son, since his main love was reading, he said.
"The Times-Herald was a major part of my childhood," he said. "We played games, sports,
and I was a voracious reader."
Messano's childhood was filled with family trips to the library and the park, teaching him that "it's the simple things" that mean the most, he said.
His love of reading was so encompassing, in fact, Messano said that in his senior year at Hogan High School, he felt his classes were interfering with it, and he basically stopped going to school. He got his GED, enlisted in the Navy and became a nuclear machinist's mate in a program founded by Admiral Hyman Rickover.
"He believed in excellence in all things, and that's what I took away from that," he said.
After training, he was stationed on a ballistic missile submarine out of Bangor, Wash. While on the ship, he read Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, which convinced him he was a conscientious objector and he mustered out of the Navy on that basis, at age 21.
Messano went to work in the mail room of an insurance company, and rose up the ranks, before buying Paul Willie's Vallejo Allstate office, upon his retirement. The firm became Ryan Messano Allstate Agency on Dec. 3.
One reason Messano said he was drawn to the insurance business and chose to operate here, is because he wants to help this city's residents.
"I feel I have a debt to the world I can never repay," he said. "I love Vallejo. I see the people here as my family. I see the church, the teachers, the people at the supermarket, all offered me guidance, encouragement and opened my eyes to the world. And I can help repay them by being someone that gets you the lowest possible price and by being there for you when there's a claim."
As a friend and former employer, local Allstate agent David Sykes said he admires Messano and even though he's technically now his competition, wishes him the best of luck in his new venture.
"I can say he's a very ethical, honest and hardworking guy and anyone who had him as an agent would be happy, and that's spoken from the heart, " Sykes said. "I'm happy for him that he has the opportunity he does. His intention is always to do the best he can for people and to treat them the way he'd like to be treated and I really like those things about him."
Contact staff writer Rachel Raskin-Zrihen at (707) 553-6824 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at RachelVTH.
Family: Single, the oldest of 17 siblings, seven girls and 11 boys, the youngest, age 10.
Occupation: Insurance agent and agency owner.
Hobbies: A "voracious" reader, also studies philosophy, camping and enjoys spending time with family and at church.
Quote: "My parents told me that my 17 younger siblings were watching what I did and would copy me, and I believed them, so I never did drugs or anything like that. My best gift is a life lived as a good example."
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(c) Times-Herald, Vallejo, Calif.