June 29, 2012

The Legacy of Pietro Montana

Victory With Peace by Pietro Montana (Photos by New York Scugnizzo)
By Giovanni di Napoli
“My wish has been to send light into the darkness of men’s hearts, and to be the servant of a noble purpose . . . art is not a vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power, which must be directed toward the refinement and improvement of the human soul.”  — Pietro Montana, in an address before the Hudson Valley Association *
After stumbling upon Anthony de Francisci's Independence Flagstaff at Union Square, I was keen on discovering other monuments by Southern Italian artists in NYC. I did some digging and found several works. Unfortunately, for some of the artists I've been unable to obtain any biographical information except that they were Italian-Americans. 

I did, however, hit the jackpot at Freedom Triangle in Bushwick, Brooklyn. While taking a ride to Williamsburg with a friend we noticed an extraordinary statue of what appeared to be an angel. We pulled over to take a closer look. According to the plaque affixed to the fence protecting the monument from vandals the artist was Pietro Montana from Alcamo, Italy. "He's Sicilian," I told my friend as I started snapping pictures!

Called Victory With Peace, the bronze statue depicts the Greek goddess Nike (Victory) bearing an olive branch. Crowned with a laurel wreath and wearing a Greek chiton the winged deity cradles a sword in her right arm. She stands on a granite pedestal with an inscription carved around its base dedicated to the ninety-three neighborhood men who fought and died in the First World War. The 19th Assembly District Committee erected the monument in 1921. 

Luckily, the plaque mentioned other works attributed to the artist. This gave me a good starting point to begin my research and I soon visited some of them.
Dawn of Glory by Pietro Montana
First up was Dawn of Glory on the Brooklyn side of Highland Park bordering Queens. Unveiled on July 13th, 1924 the memorial honors members of the local community who served their country during World War I. An estimated 10,000 people attended the ceremony. The larger than life statue depicts a fallen soldier rising from the battlefield. Nude and powerfully built the ascending figure casts off his shroud symbolizing his triumph over death. I would later learn that the soldier was modeled after the famous Calabrian bodybuilder Angelo Siciliano (1894-1972), better known as Charles Atlas. 

According to Elmer Sprague, author of the wonderful Brooklyn Public Monuments (2008), "Montana's linking of death in battle with resurrection, a theme often represented in European war monuments, is unique among American World War I monuments." The granite pedestal, decorated with torches and Roman fasces, used to have a dedication plaque with the names of the 108 servicemen who fought and died in the fratricidal conflict. 
Fighting Doughboy by Pietro Montana
Not far from Freedom Square is Heisser Triangle and the Bushwick-Ridgewood War Memorial. Called the Fighting Doughboy the statue was Montana's first monument. In 1920 the Unity Republican Club held a competition for a WWI memorial and Montana's design won. With open shirt and helmet on the ground the heroic figure appears to have just jumped to attention. Fist clenched and rifle in hand the hard-nosed infantryman looks ready for any challenge. Sadly, the bayonet point appears to have been damaged. The Parks Department website confirms that the monument has been vandalized on several occasions.

Dedicated with much fanfare on November 20th, 1921 the monument commemorates the 151 soldiers from the area who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. The work was a huge success. A copy stands outside Borough Hall in North Arlington, New Jersey and was the basis for another Doughboy Montana made in 1927 for East Providence, Rhode Island. A gentleman from Ohio who witnessed the unveiling thought the statue resembled his fallen son so much he requested a replica. It serves as a monument in the cemetery where his son lies buried.
Washington Irving and Mark Twain by Pietro Montana
My next visit was to the Brevoort Hotel on Fifth Avenue and 9th Street in Manhattan. A small bronze tablet with bas-relief portraits of Washington Irving and Mark Twain on the outside wall serves as a reminder that the two famed authors once resided at the location. Commissioned by the Greenwich Village Historical Society, the piece was mounted on May 26, 1925.

Finally, I dropped by Metropolitan Pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to view Montana's Mrs. Catherine I. Carroll Memorial. The work can be found just inside the left stairwell in the main lobby. Installed in 1927 the bronze tablet with incised marble frame was a gift from friends to perpetuate her memory. Wife of Senator Daniel J. Carroll, she dedicated much time to the welfare of neighborhood children. The relief portrait shows a kneeling Mrs. Carroll compassionately caressing two impoverished children. I'm not sure of the symbolism, but a lit brazier sits atop a baluster in the left hand corner filling the background with flames and smoke. Perhaps it represents the eternal flame?
Mrs. Catherine I. Carroll tablet by Pietro Montana
My early research brought me to the NYC Parks and Recreation website and their entries on Montana's monuments. After additional searching I came across Elmer Sprague's Brooklyn Public Monuments (2008) and Ilaria Serra's The Value of Worthless Lives: Writing Italian American Immigrant Autobiographies (2007), which had short chapters dedicated to the artist. This is where I learned Montana published his memoirs, Memories: An Autobiography, in 1977. I combed the web and found a used copy in decent condition. I did notice some biographical discrepancies between the various sources, so whenever there was a conflict I referred to Montana's account, assuming he would be the definitive authority on the details of his own life. 

Pietro Montana was born on June 29th, 1892 in Alcamo, a small city in the province of Trapani in northwestern Sicily. The third of six children—Giuseppe (Peppino), Liborio (Popo), Pietro, Agata, Brigida and Maria—he was raised in an environment conducive to artistic learning. His father Ignazio worked as a wine maker for the Marquis of Sirignano. Lu Padre, as his children affectionately called him, also made wine barrels and crystal chandeliers for the church. During holidays Ignazio would make paper lanterns to illuminate the streets and hot air balloons to light the night sky. He also made the carroccio, or wooden carriage, used by parishioners to carry their saint's statue during religious processions.

As a child, when not in school, Montana would accompany his father to work and lend a hand whenever possible. After dinner he would listen attentively to the poems his father would recite in the Sicilian tradition. Perhaps the true seeds of his artistic talents were sown during the Christmas season when he would mold intricate figurines out of clay and wire for the family prespio, or Christmas Nativity.

In 1900 the dreadful fillossera (Phylloxera) blight wiped out Sicily's grape vineyards and ruined his family's main source of income. The disaster exasperated already dire economic conditions and spurred mass emigration from the island. To compensate for the loss, Ignazio bought two sewing machines and with the help of Montana began knitting sox for emigrants leaving for America. 

That same year, Montana's oldest brother Giuseppe died of meningitis. He was only twenty-five years old. As to be expected his mother, Marianna, took it badly and became a recluse. On the advice of a cousin, the family moved to Camporeale. They hoped that a change in scenery and closer proximity to relatives would help their distraught mother cope with her loss. The family continued with their stocking-making venture, but due to the large numbers of people leaving, could not keep up with the demand.

In the meantime, Montana's older brother Liborio and two brothers-in-law left for America. After establishing himself in Brooklyn as a tailor, Liborio sent for Montana. Ignazio obtained a passport and passage for his son and at the age of fourteen, with eighty Lira in his pocket, departed from Palermo aboard the Citta di Napoli to Ellis Island. Just a month later his parents and sisters decided to join them.

Soon after his arrival a family friend gave Montana a tour of New York City. His first stop was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The experience was an epiphany. Seeing all the masterpieces and watching the art students copy the works inspired Montana to pursue art. 

As a teenager Montana and his friends frequented an anarchist social club called Club Avanti. He recalled listening to the lectures and perusing its library filled with Leftist propaganda. Their ideology of violent revolution and redistribution of wealth never appealed to him:
"Men always envy those who succeed and have fortunes. In life, there can never be equality among all, for some men are limited in ability, while others are intelligent and capable and succeed in their fields. The one who fails wants to adjust the system." (Memories, p.39)
Montana bounced from job to job until he began apprenticing for a photographer, all the time practicing his art. One day his cousin, Father Giacomo Ruvolo, noticed his artwork and arranged for Montana to draw the portrait of Archbishop Mondelain. Happy with the work, Ruvolo encourage him to take classes and helped him fill out the applications. In 1909 Montana was accepted into Cooper Union Art School. He worked during the day, studied at night. He graduated in 1915.

Eventually, with the help of his brother, Montana opened his own photography studio. This allowed him to make his own hours and concentrate on his artwork. 

With the outbreak of the First World War, immigrant communities were naturally worried about the welfare of their relatives back home. News of Italy's disaster at Caporetto inspired Montana to make a bas-relief sculpture (Profughi del Friuli) of the Friuli refugees fleeing from the advancing Austrian army. He entered the massive piece in the annual National Academy of Design exhibit. Despite not meeting the regulations for the submissions they displayed the sculpture anyway because of the quality of the work. 

Montana's big break came in 1920 when he made a name for himself with his Fighting Doughboy statue. The popularity of the piece earned him other commissions and some important connections. With his new success Montana was not only able to give up his photography business, but also buy his parents a house in Brooklyn with a yard so his father could have a garden. He would later be instrumental in founding the Leonardo Da Vinci School of Art in New York City.

In 1927 Montana became friends with Alfrida Kramer, who worked at the David Manes Music School. He painted several portraits of her and their friendship would soon blossom into love. They married on April 3, 1930 in an Episcopalian church because Alfrida was Protestant. The newlyweds honeymooned in Europe, first taking a cruise to France then to Italy where Montana exhibited his work in Rome. Alfrida and Pietro would return to Europe years later for the World's Fair in Paris (1937). While staying with close friends in Brussels, Belgium Alfrida converted to Catholicism.

Back in the States Montana started teaching art, first to affluent women then to blind students. It was such a novel idea that Eleanor Roosevelt came to observe his techniques. In 1931 he entered his Orphans, two baby pigs carved in black marble, into the annual National Academy of Design exhibition. He won the gold-medal.

Montana was also very active in the Italian American community, contributing much of his time, money and skills to various charitable causes. During World War II he helped organize various fundraisers seeking financial support for Italy's war orphans. When Italian POWs and suspected Fascist sympathizers were sent to concentration camps in the United States he organized food and clothing drives for the prisoners. Care packages were also sent to distressed family and friends back in Italy. Of course some questioned his humanitarian activities, but any suspicions of disloyalty were quickly put to rest when his philanthropic record was examined. Montana also helped the suffering people of France, Russia and Japan.

After the War Montana continued making art as well as supporting worthwhile causes. He worked very closely on behalf of war orphans with Father Carloni, an Italian military chaplain who survived the Russian front. He also made several memorial plaques for American servicemen. Deeply religious, Montana did many works for the Church, including the Stations of the Cross at Fordham University Church in the Bronx and four saints—Patrick, Boniface, Cyril and Methodius—at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

The Montanas made another journey to Europe to visit Alfrida's relatives in Sweden. They enjoyed their stay so much Montana donated a couple of statues to the cities of Klippan and Nordiken. From Sweden they made their way to Rome where they had a private audience with Pope Pius XII at Castel Gondolfo. From the Eternal City they traveled south to Sicily to visit Montana's hometown of Alcamo. To his surprise, they were received with a hero's welcome. Greeted by the Mayor, the town held a banquet in their native son's honor. All the important citizens of Alcamo were invited.

When the owner of Sherwood Studios, Montana's home for twenty-eight years, decided to sell the property the tenants were forced to leave. Alfrida and Montana moved into another studio in Manhattan, but it did not meet their needs, so they decided to move to Rome. In 1962 they set sail on the Raffaello and reached Napoli after eight days at sea. While waiting for their apartment to be prepared the couple toured Europe, taking in many sites and visiting old friends. Far from hurting Montana's livelihood the commissions kept coming in from the States. They lived a simple life.

After Alfrida's death, Montana returned to the U.S. to be with his family. He sold or gave away many of his pieces; however, the bulk of his artwork was donated to Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. The university honored him with a doctor of humanities degree. Working to the end he kept busy with commissions and family portraits. 

One day Montana decided to visit his monuments in Brooklyn. It was fifty years since he last seen them. He was shocked and appalled at the poor state of preservation. He couldn't believe how quickly the neighborhoods deteriorated. So he wrote a letter to Mayor Beame imploring him to do something about "our depreciated neighborhoods' problems." As a philanthropist who came from a poor immigrant community himself, he felt that there was no excuse for what he was seeing. He blamed the government’s welfare system and people who he felt were exploiting it instead of using it to get back on their feet.

A year before he died in 1978, Montana wrote his memoirs. In it he revealed his biggest regret was not having children. Sadly, due to a childhood illness and operation, Alfrida was unable to have any. He consoled himself with the knowledge that his legacy would live on through his artwork.
"No man in this world can fulfill his every desire. But I do thank God for the many achievements He permitted me to accomplish." (Memories, p. 184)

Memories: An Autobiography by Dr. Pietro Montana, N.A., F.N.S.S., Exposition Press, 1977
Brooklyn Public Monuments: Sculpture for Civic Memory and Urban Pride by Elmer Sprague, Dog Ear Publishing, 2008
The Value of Worthless Lives: Writing Italian American Immigrant Autobiographies by Ilaria Serra, Fordham University, 2007

* Quoted from NYC Parks Department website

June 28, 2012

An Author in Search of a Cause

Luigi Pirandello – the Instrument of Creation
By Niccolò Graffio
“Well, if you want to take away from me the possibility of representing the torment of my spirit which never gives me peace, you will be suppressing me: that's all. Every true man, sir, who is a little above the level of the beasts and plants does not live for the sake of living, without knowing how to live; but he lives so as to give a meaning and a value of his own to life.” – Luigi Pirandello: Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1921.
It has often been said that tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, most comedies seem to arise out of tragedies. The late stand-up comedian Richard Pryor is an excellent example of this phenomenon. For years he regaled audiences, both black and white, with tales of his childhood in the slums of Peoria, Illinois. Audiences would regularly howl with laughter at his stories of living in bone-crunching poverty, abuse at the hands of his elders, substance abuse and trying to avoid falling into the “tender mercies” of street gangs. One has to wonder, though, how many people would think all this funny if it happened to them, or how many others laughed simply because it was better than crying.

Tragedy, therefore, while lamentable, can also be a source of inspiration for those fortunate enough to be born with the creative spark that allows them to put feelings into words and convey their meaning to others. This has been done not just with the genre of Comedy, but Drama as well (among others). The subject of this article is one such man. One who, in spite of the various tragedies that overshadowed his life, put pen in hand and gave the world some of its more memorable literature, as well as helping to reshape modern theater.

Luigi Pirandello was born on June 28, 1867 in the town of Kaos (Chaos), a poor suburb of the town of Girgenti (now Agrigento), Sicily. Unlike the bulk of his fellow Sicilians, Pirandello was blessed with being born into a fairly wealthy family. His father, Stefano, owned a prosperous sulfur mine. His mother, Caterina Ricci Gramitto, descended from a family of professionals. Continue reading

June 23, 2012

The Neglected Genius: Giambattista Vico of Naples

Giambattista Vico 
(b. June 23, 1668 — d. January 22-23, 1744)
Photo by New York Scugnizzo

By Niccolò Graffio
“I don’t believe in any science, but my imagination grows when I read Vico in a way that it doesn’t when I read Freud or Jeung.” – James Joyce (Ellman, Richard: James Joyce. 2nd ed. pg. 693, New York: Oxford UP, 1983)
The simplest definition of history is the branch of knowledge dealing with past events. Though it is admittedly an oversimplification, one could argue that human history is created by basically two types of people: doers and sayers. The doers could also be termed “people of action”; those who make their mark by engaging in activities that significantly alter the world, for better or worse. Examples of this sort include Alexander of Macedon, Christopher Columbus, the Wright brothers and Albert Einstein.

Sayers, on the other hand, are those who, through the printed and/or spoken word, seek to alter the world around them by impressing their thoughts on others. Examples of this sort include Kong Qiu (Confucius), Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Paine and Karl Marx.

As one might imagine, often there is a considerable degree of overlap between these two broad categories. Thomas Jefferson, for example, one of America’s greatest presidents, was also a political philosopher who sought, through his writings, to spread the ideals of liberal republicanism across the globe as a counter to the hegemonistic aspirations of British monarchial imperialism.

It has been said the only thing truly respected in the animal kingdom is strength, and though many still don’t like to admit it, we humans are members of that kingdom, albeit it’s most psychologically complex members. Thus, it should come as little surprise the bulk of the Great Unwashed would be more familiar with the “greats” among the doers than those among the sayers. It should be comparatively easy (thanks to Hollywood) to find Americans familiar with the life of General George S. Patton Jr. Good luck trying to find someone (outside of a university campus) who’s ever read any of the works of Thomas Paine. Continue reading

June 22, 2012

Death of Ruggero d'Altavilla (Roger I of Sicily)

Ruggiero il Normanno
The facade of the Palazzo Reale di Napoli
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
By Giovanni di Napoli
Dextera Domini fecit virtutem. Dextera Domini exaltavit me. (The right hand of God gave me courage. The right hand of God raised me up) – The inscription on Roger's shield following his victory at Cerami (Quoted from The Normans in Sicilyby John Julius Norwich)
June 22, 1101 Marks the death of Ruggero d'Altavilla (Roger de Hauteville).
The Norman arrival in Southern Italy began in the eleventh century. According to tradition, in 1016 a group of pilgrims drove away a band of Moslem raiders plaguing the Lombard Principality of Salerno. Grateful and impressed with the Normans' martial prowess the Lombards invited them to stay. Word quickly spread through the halls of Normandy about the opportunities for soldiers-of-fortune and it wasn't long before the rival lords of Southern Italy were employing Norman freebooters in their wars. Continue reading

June 20, 2012

Happy Summer!

Apollo (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
In celebration of the summer solstice, or midsummer, I would like to share a poem by the great Sicilian poet and 1959 Nobel Laureate Salvatore Quasimodo from The Night Fountain: Selected Early Poems translated by Marco Sonzogni and Gerald Sawe, Arc Publications, 2008, p. 48-49. The accompanying photo of Apollo was taken at the Temple of Apollo (below) in Pompeii. In addition to being the god of music, poetry and prophecy, Apollo was, of course, the god of the sun.


The untouched soul, in the airy batiste apron,
with sacred gesture spreads seeds.

You have to love her with pure eye,
when her naked feet skim the earth
and the sun burns the silk of her hair:
because the earth is her temple
and the sun is her Lord.

L'anima intatta, nel vaporoso grembiule di batista,
con gesto sacro, sparge la semente.
Bisonga amarla con occhio di purezza,
quando i suoi piedi nudi sfiorano la terra
e il sole le brucia la seta dei capelli:
ché la terra è il suo tempio,
e il sole suo Signore.

Temple of Apollo, Pompeii (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)

June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day! (2012)

In celebration of Father's Day I'm sharing a poem by Giuseppe Jovine from Dialect Poetry of Southern Italy: Texts and Criticism (A Trilingual Anthology) edited by Luigi Bonaffini, Legas, 1997, p.162.

My Father's Ties

So many ties laid out, tassels and bows
all made of cotton, of light wool or silk,
rose-colored, deep blue or red and black,
hanging inside the closet in neat rows.
Mount Vesuvius's plume of smoke, and the sea
of Margellina on a picture landscape,
then a bridge and a river on a crease
underneath the Pope wearing his skullcap.

At every knot upon those colored neckties
my father's hands blossomed into flowers,
at every knot upon those colored neckties
in a brightly-lit room before a mirror
those hands played music on an instrument.
Now all those neckties with so many colors
seem instruments that lie bereft of sound.

Translated by Luigi Bonaffini

Le cravatte de tata

Quanta cravatte, schiocche e nucchetelle
de seta, de cuttone e de lanetta,
roscie e nere, turchine e rusatelle
appise 'n fila dentr'a la tuletta!
A 'na targhetta lu pennacchie 'e fume
du Vesuvie e lu mare a Margellina,
a nu resvolte nu ponte e nu sciume
sott'a lu Papa che la papalina.

A ogne nude de chille cravatte
ievene sciure le mane de tata,
a ogne nude de chille cravatte
'nnanz'a lu specchie na stanza lucente
sunavene lle mane nu strumente!
Tutte chille cravatte culurate
mò parene struminte senza fiate.

da Lu pavone, 1983

June 15, 2012

A Day to Remember

The Burning of the General Slocum
The PS General Slocum (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
By Niccolò Graffio

Anyone who’s been reading the articles I write for this blog knows that I am a Sicilian* and am quite proud of that fact. My people have a long and rich history filled with fascinating people and events that deserves to be retold and discussed. Though the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was invaded and destroyed by its enemies in 1861, its children, scattered across the globe, still contribute to this wonderful thing we call Western Civilization, even if we no longer have a homeland to call our own.

However, I am also an American, born and raised in the City of New York and am equally proud of both of those facts, as well. Why shouldn’t I be? America, economically and militarily, is still the preeminent power in the world. New York City is the economic hub of America. Just as the Christian theologian Saul Paulus of Tarsus (aka the Apostle Paul) was proud to call himself a Roman citizen, so am I proud to call myself an American one.

Some might accuse me of being a “hyphenated American” or worse, a dual loyalist, saying it is impossible to share love and loyalty with two homelands. I find such a sentiment laughable! Do we not as human beings share our love and loyalty with both our parents (if we’re lucky enough to have two parents, anyway)? I have always thought of i Due Sicilie as my fatherland, because the seed which produced me sprang from there. Likewise, I have always felt America was my motherland because I was raised and nurtured here.

Make no mistake about it; I was born and raised in these United States of America, and I intend to die and be buried here! Yet I shall also always have a place in my heart for members of my ethnos and the lands from which they sprang. Call it tribalism, ethnocentrism, or anything else you wish; that’s just the way it is, with no apologies to anyone, including narrow-minded nativists.

To date I have written exclusively about the trials and travails of my people, the Sicilians*, both here and abroad. This is hardly surprising; given the fact this is an ethno-cultural blog. Yet if the expatriates of i Due Sicilie are my brethren, are not Americans my fellow citizens? I do not intend to go off on a tangent and start writing about American history; there are plenty of other blogs that engage in that activity, for those interested in such a topic.

Yet sitting here, staring at my calendar, I am reminded of the imminent approach of a somber date in the history of the City of New York. An anniversary of a tragedy, a horror in fact, that took the lives of over a thousand innocent New Yorkers. It is to them, my fellow New Yorkers, that I dedicate this article. Continue reading
*Sicilians – native inhabitants of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

June 11, 2012

A Look at Belmont's Feast of Sant'Antonio (2012)

Viva Sant'Antonio!
By Giovanni di Napoli

This year's Feast of Sant'Antonio da Padova in the Bronx's Little Italy featured for the first time in almost a century its own 60-foot giglio. For those who don't know, the giglio is an ornately decorated towering spire built with wood and paper-mache in honor of a patron saint. The structure, along with a brass band, is lifted by a host of men called the paranza and carried through the streets. At various intervals the lifters perform what is known as "the dance of the giglio," where the obelisk is spun, bounced and swayed back and forth in time with the music.

The custom originated in the Southern Italian town of Nola during the fifth century in honor of San Paolino. Over the centuries neighboring towns in Campania have adopted similar practices for their own celebrations. In time, the immigrants from these towns carried over their traditions to the New World, most notably the Nolani who settled into Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Bruscianese in East Harlem, New York. 

The Bronx's giglio—painted red, white and blue—was adorned with effigies of Sant'Antonio, San Paolino, Padre Pio da Pietrelcina and the Madonna del Carmine. To the delight of the many spectators it was paraded around the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I had the great privilege of being invited to participate in the lift. It was my first time and was truly an exhilarating experience; one I won't soon forget. The giglio was surprisingly easier to carry than I thought, but I would be a liar if I didn't admit my shoulder was a little sore.

Arthur Avenue and 187th Street in the Bronx was definitely the place to be this weekend. The weather was great; the food was better and the giglio was rockin'!
This adorable little angel kicked-off the festivities with a terrific rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner
The Capo takes charge
Veterans and the next generation lift side-by-side
The Giglio Boys from Williamsburg, Brooklyn lend their support
A family affair: Father and son, Domenic and Anthony Varuzza, partake in the rite. They've been lifting together in Williamsburg for years. They even participated for Fantastic Team back in Nola.
A close-up of the gold giglio charm worn by the paranza from Brooklyn
Marching down 187th Street
Men working on the Giglio before the festivities
Photos by New York Scugnizzo

One for the Coach

The Vince Lombardi Story
The Immortal Vince
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.com)
By Niccolò Graffio
“A dictionary is the only place that success comes before work. Hard work is the price we must pay for success. I think you can accomplish anything if you're willing to pay the price.” – Vince Lombardi
Americans love sports!  Though the same could be said truthfully about elsewhere, it is especially true here.  The reasons for this are manifold.  The fact that television, which gave spectator sports to the masses, was invented and first popularized here no doubt played a large part.  Capitalism may have been a Dutch invention but crass Capitalism (which includes sports-oriented consumerism) is a decidedly American one.

Association football, or as it is more commonly known throughout the world, football or soccer, has never quite attracted the crowds here that it has in other countries.  This is no doubt due to the fact it has a lot of competition for the hearts and minds of Americans.  Baseball has been called ‘America’s pastime’ and historically has been thought of as this country’s most popular spectator sport.  It may surprise many, however, to learn the most popular sport in America, in terms of both participants (at the high school and college level) and spectators overall is American football.  Americans like to refer to Association football as ‘soccer’ while reserving the name ‘football’ for its beloved pigskin-kicking sport.

Basketball and ice hockey round out the ‘Big Four’ professional team sports popular here in the states, though changes in demographics are no doubt responsible for fueling the surging popularity of soccer.  If current trends continue, there can be little doubt one day soccer will make up one of the “Big Five”.  

Baseball has been successful as an American export.  It enjoys a large following in countries such as Japan (where it is the leading spectator team sport), Mexico, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Columbia, Panama, South Korea, Taiwan, Venezuela and even Communist-run Cuba.  Canada has one team, the Toronto Blue Jays that is a franchise in Major League Baseball (MLB).  Many immigrants from these countries have wound up playing and distinguishing themselves on MLB teams including designated hitter (and World Series MVP winner) Hideki Matsui of Japan, who helped the New York Yankees crush the snot out of the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 MLB World Series.

While basketball ranks third, behind baseball and football, in terms of popularity of professional sports (per National Basketball Association or NBA viewership), according to the National Sporting Goods Association, more Americans play basketball than any other team sport.

Ice hockey is the only one of the ‘Big Four’ professional team sports not to have originated (in its present form) here in the U.S.  It is actually a Canadian invention, and while it has become very popular here, Canadian players continue to dominate it.  Since the welcome collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, however, a number of players have flocked to these shores from Eastern and even Northern Europe.  In addition, an increasing number of American players, such as New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider, are showing they can give as well as they can get on the ice.  The Canadians have their work cut out for them.

Despite the global obsession with Association football, American football has likewise found a niche outside of this country’s borders.  American military personnel stationed overseas were in large part responsible for fueling its popularity, and in fact to this day make up a significant portion of the amateur players in other countries.  Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France and Mexico are among the countries that have amateur leagues that are members of the IFAF (International Federation of American Football).  The IFAF serves as an umbrella organization for a number of more region-specific leagues, such as the European Federation of American Football.  The American Football Association of Germany (AFVD) oversees more than 230 German clubs.

As with baseball, though, it is the Japanese who dominate American Football (outside the U.S.).  The Rice Bowl, an event sponsored by the Japanese American Football Association that occurs in Japan every January 3rd, routinely attracts over 60,000 spectators.

Southern Italians have not made much of a mark for themselves in ice hockey and basketball (yet).  With baseball, of course, our people have produced such notables as New York Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto and even greats such as the ‘Yankee Clipper’ Joe DiMaggio!   American football would be no different.  In fact, one of our own has risen to the ranks of the iconic in football, a legend in his own right. 
A plaque dedicated to Vince Lombardi in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
Vincent Thomas “Vince” Lombardi was born on June 11th, 1913 in Brooklyn, NY to Enrico “Harry” Lombardi and Matilda “Mattie” Izzo.  His father’s parents were immigrants from Salerno in the region of Campania, Italy.  His mother’s parents were from the town of Vietri di Potenza in Basilicata.  Vince grew up in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn.  His father and uncle ran a successful butcher shop in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan which kept the family clothed and well fed during the Great Depression.

Vince’s parents were both deeply religious Roman Catholics; a fact reflected in his upbringing.  As a youth he was an altar boy at St. Mark’s Catholic Church.  He also helped his father at his butcher shop, but later admitted he didn’t care for it.  It was also during this time he had his first exposure to the game of football, playing with an uncoached football league that operated out of his neighborhood.

In 1928 he entered the Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception, a six-year secondary program designed to prepare him for the Catholic priesthood.  However, after four years he decided not to pursue this as a career.  He then enrolled in St. Francis Preparatory high school which at that time was located in Brooklyn (it is now located in Fresh Meadows, Queens).  By this time he had improved enough as a football player that he earned a place on the virtual All-City football team.

The following year he accepted a football scholarship to Fordham University in the Bronx.  In spite of his relatively short size (5’8” tall and 180 lbs.) he demonstrated to his coach that he was a good player.  By the time he reached his senior year, he was placed as the front guard for Fordham football teams’ offensive front line.  It was during this year, in a game against the Pittsburgh Panthers, that he would suffer a serious injury, causing him to lose several teeth, thus giving him his distinctive smile.

He graduated from Fordham University in the spring of 1937.  However, with America still in the throes of the Great Depression there was little in the way of job opportunities, and he didn’t wish to work in his father’s meat cutting business.  A year later his father encouraged him to enroll in Fordham Law School but he dropped out after only one semester.

He explained his wish, instead, to marry his sweetheart, a young woman named Marie Planitz.  Vince’s father, however, was adamant that before his son could marry he had to procure a job in order to support the family.  To assuage his father, he took a job as an assistant coach at St. Cecilia Roman Catholic high school in Englewood, NJ.  The position had been offered to him by the school’s new head coach, Andy Palau.  Palau had been the quarterback (and Vince’s teammate) at Fordham University.  In addition to his coaching duties, Lombardi also taught Latin, chemistry and physics at the school, all for the princely sum of just under $1,000 year. 

When Vince’s girlfriend announced to her father her desire to marry she was informed he did not want her marrying an Italian.  This would not be the first or the last time in his life that Vince Lombardi would be exposed to the rampant and overt anti-Italianism that existed in America back then (and still exists, albeit in a more covert form).  In spite of her father’s protests, Marie married her sweetheart on August 31st, 1940, and according to her later account, almost immediately realized she had made a mistake!

To listen to her, he was obsessed with football!  He spoke of it even on their honeymoon, which he cut short to get back to his coaching job at St. Cecilia’s.  There were also the problems of his authoritarian personality, his perfectionism, and above all…his temper.  Had he chosen a military career path, he might have one day made an excellent general.  Not too long after marrying, Marie would suffer a miscarriage, a devastating event that sent her down a whirlwind path of depression and chronic drinking.  She would eventually give birth to a son, Vincent Harold (Vince Jr.) Lombardi, on April 27th, 1942.  She later gave birth to a daughter, Susan, on February 13th, 1947.

Around the time of Vince Jr.’s birth Andy Palau left his head coaching job at St. Cecilia’s to accept a position at Fordham U.  Lombardi, in turn, took over the head coaching position at St. Cecilia’s.  He would spend the next five years as head coach, drilling his brand of perfectionism into his charges minds and bodies.  Just one year later St. Cecilia’s football team was recognized as the top high school football team in America. 

The year his daughter was born he became the coach of freshman football and basketball teams at his old alma mater, Fordham U.  A year later he was bumped up to assistant coach for Fordham’s varsity football team.

The next year he accepted another assistant coaching position at West Point where he worked as offensive line coach for Earl “Colonel Red” Blaik.  It was here that Lombardi refined his leadership skills as a coach.  Blaik emphasized to Lombardi the importance of execution, something that would become the hallmark of Vince’s style of coaching.  He would remain at West Point for five years with mixed results.  His last two seasons there were unsuccessful due to a cadet cheating scandal that resulted in 95% of the varsity football team being discharged by administrative order.  Years later, when asked what he learned from his experience there, Lombardi stated that Blaik’s decision not to resign taught him the value of perseverance.

Vince Lombardi began his professional NFL career with the New York Giants in 1954, when he accepted a position with them as assistant coach.  The previous year the Giants had finished the season with a dismal 3-9 record.  By the third season, Lombardi, working with the great defensive coordinator Tom Landry, had turned them into a team of championship caliber that defeated the Chicago Bears for the title in 1956.

In spite of this victory, Lombardi chafed at the thought of remaining an assistant coach.  He thus jumped at the chance when offered the twin positions of head coach and general manager with the Green Bay Packers in January, 1959.  Lombardi found the Packers in even worse shape than the Giants!  In the previous season their record was a pathetic 1-1-10 (one win, one tie and 10 losses).  

Rather than be discouraged, he took this as a challenge he felt he could surmount.  The Packers soon learned Vince Lombardi’s brutal reputation as a coach was well-deserved.  He put his players through punishing training regimens that bordered on inhumane…but they quickly produced results!  His first season with the new team ended with them notching up a 7-5 record.  In recognition of his feat the NFL named him Coach of the Year.

The following year the Packers, under Lombardi’s iron discipline, won the NFL Western Conference for the first time in 16 years!  He then took the team against Philadelphia Eagles in the 1960 NFL Championship game, suffering the only Championship loss of his career as head coach of the Packers.  After the game was over he berated the team for allowing the Eagles to stop them just a few yards from the goal line and a victory.  He told them, “This will never happen again.  You will never lose another championship.”

Like his parents, Vince Lombardi was deeply religious.  His zeal for Catholicism, plus his ability to lead his team to victory, earned him the moniker “the Pope” from the Packers.  His firsthand experience with the ethnic bigotry suffered by so many of our people in this country likewise left a deep emotional scar, and throughout his tenure with the Packers he maintained a zero-tolerance policy for prejudice of any kind.

Like so many other heroes, he had feet of clay.  In his case this was manifested by his temper.  In truth, he was aware of this and prayed often for help in controlling it.  Nevertheless, it remained a point of contention in a tumultuous marriage.

Like so many others of his generation, he was stubborn and lackadaisical when it came to his health.  Plagued by digestive problems, he ignored his doctor who suggested he get a proctoscopic exam…that would cost him dearly!  On June 24th, 1970 he was admitted to Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC complaining of severe intestinal distress.  Tests revealed he had an aggressive colo-rectal cancer.  Subsequent tests a few weeks later revealed the cancer was terminal.  

Lombardi received numerous friends, family and fans at his bedside.  President Richard Nixon himself called Lombardi and told him America was behind him.  Despite the outpouring of support, on September 3rd, 1970 Vince Lombardi, head coach of the Green Bay Packers, died of cancer.

His funeral was held four days later in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City with approximately 1,500 in attendance.  

During his tenure with the Green Bay Packers they won five NFL Championships and two Super Bowls, making him one of the greatest head coaches in NFL history.  This is reflected in the fact the NFL Super Bowl trophy is named in his honor.  Even after his death his name and legendary persona have remained in the popular culture.

Back in 1973 actor Ernest Borgnine portrayed Lombardi in a one-hour ABC TV movie entitled “Legend in Granite”.  In 2010 actor Dan Lauria portrayed him at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway in a play called, appropriately enough, Lombardi.  It co-starred actress Judith Light as his wife Marie.  

His legacy to the game of American football, plus the lessons he left us for leading a successful life, lesson that include pride, perseverance and devotion, have certainly earned this man a place among the Titans of our people. 

Further reading:

1) David Maraniss: When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi: Simon & Schuster, 2000
2) Vince Lombardi: What It Takes to Be #1: Vince Lombardi on Leadership:  McGraw-Hill, 2003