Spring’s early glories were in full bloom under a crystal clear blue sky. The forsythias, dogwoods and cherry trees dotted the landscape with their yellows, pinks and whites, and the first tinges of green laced the canopy of trees with small, just emerging buds. But the vibrant hues of spring clashed with the solemn blacks and grays of the suits and dresses worn by the men and women waiting in line at the small Episcopal Church in the rural community north of Philadelphia.
What set this weekday morning apart from the normal memorial service or funeral was the sweet aroma of cigar smoke filling the parking lot and wafting across the somber line of mourners waiting to pay their respects. The cigar world had gathered to pay respects to one of their own, Manny Ferrero.
I write this blog not just to pay my respects to Manny—yes, he was a friend of mine—but about the world that he moved in, the world of cigars.
Suzanne Levin, the wife of Robert Levin, the owner of Holt’s and Ashton Cigar Distributors where Manny worked, spoke eloquently about the moment of his death, on the dance floor at the Tobacconist’s Association of America annual meeting, twirling his wife, Rosemary, around him in a joyous celebration. “They gathered,” she said, talking about the place, a luxurious resort on Cabo San Lucas, and then relating how they sat in a small chapel the next day recalling the life of one of their own, and how he had touched each of them with his humor, his love of life and his often characteristically blunt way of speaking.
Those words have stuck with me now since the funeral, spending a few hours at a lunch and a reception with Manny’s fellow cigar cohorts, and people from other parts of his life—his private social world, his colleagues from his former life as a Philadelphia policeman and friends from his community. But also in the crowd were people in the cigar business I have known for 20 years—manufacturers, retailers, distributors and competitors, all gathering to pay their respects.
To those of you outside the cigar world looking in, you may suspect it is just like any other business, a sprawling, loosely interconnected tangle of companies and employees that barely know each other and rarely gather. But you would be wrong to compare the cigar world to other businesses. It is a small community, in some ways a beleaguered one that suffers from excessive taxation and regulation, and bears the stigma of today’s scarlet letter, the mark of Tobacco. Those external pressures tighten the bonds we feel among ourselves. And we do gather, at cigar events in every corner of the land, at small tobacconists who hold dinners and receptions, at Big Smokes and sometimes at sad events like Manny Ferrero’s funeral.
We also gather at the annual IPCPR, the biggest cigar convention in the United States. We share breakfasts, and lunches, cigars at the food courts and in the aisles, and dinners, often extravagant affairs that over the course of the convention bring together nearly every retailer in the country. It was at those dinners held by Ashton, the company where Manny worked for more than 30 years, where many came to not just know Manny Ferrero but to know the truth of our industry. His “toasts” to start the evening were legendary and always entertaining, an over-the-top exhortation to love your family, love your neighbor, love your coworkers and love your country, all things he did to the max.
His affection for his industry, truly a big part of his world, resonates for anyone with a connection to cigars. We all know the feeling of inclusion, of being part of a world where you are not anonymous, where people care about what’s going on in your life. Years after my young daughter’s last visit to a TAA (the same convention where Manny passed this year), I’m still asked how she’s doing.
expect to be welcomed into the community, and we are. We share. We know
about each other’s lives and successes. We know about each other’s
trials and tribulations. We know there is a family larger than our own
that cares for us. We know when one of us falls.
And that’s why we gathered in a small Philadelphia suburb last week.