I was nine years old the night that Governor Mario Cuomo decided not to get on that plane for New Hampshire, and not to seek the Presidency of the United States of America. I can remember my father sitting me down in the living room of our house to watch the press conference. President George H.W. Bush was a hero of my dad’s, I knew that even as a kid. But now, he told me, an Italian American…one of our own…was about to declare himself a Presidential candidate, and he would have an awfully good chance of winning the highest office in this great nation.
There was a palpable energy in that little living room as we watched the governor of New York stride to the podium, and a palpable sense of loss when he told the nation that he would not seek the Presidency. It felt something like a death in the family. Even at nine years old, I could sense the deflation in the room and in my dad.
As I grew older, and came to understand the intricacies, both good and bad, of our collective Italian American experience, that night with dad took on an ever deeper significance for me. I came to understand what Mario Cuomo meant for our community, still living in the shadow of stereotypes, still struggling to be seen as fully engaged Americans. It didn’t matter if you liked his politics…here was a discernibly great Italian American. This man who held his culture, his history, and our Italian American values close to his heart and wore them with an almost stoic pride. This man who refused to change his Italian name in order to secure a job at a big Manhattan law firm, who started his career serving the Italian Americans of his neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. His achievements were in some way a testament to our community…and his arrival was to be in some way all of ours.
Nowadays, looking back, I think we forget how far our community has come in the 20 years that have passed since that election. A great deal of that progress is owed to the works of Governor Mario Cuomo, and men and women like him, who brought our values to all they did, and did it with an incredible sense of pride in their Italian-ness.
The first NIAF event I oversaw after taking this job was the 2012 New York Gala. We had 720 guests packed into Cipriani 42nd Street and I was frantically fumbling my way through the last minute preparations for the first event under my watch. And then one of our team members approached me and told me that Mario and Matilda Cuomo had just walked into the room. I went from being the man running the show to the nine-year-old boy again, and I summoned all of the courage that the nine-year-old boy could summon, and I approached Governor and Mrs. Cuomo, and asked them if we could have a photo together.
Here were two people who had not only done their best to serve the nation, but had always made a conscious effort to do all they could for the needs and issues of our Italian American community. Governor Cuomo took my arm and told me he was happy to see such a young man at the helm of an organization like NIAF, but he reminded me not to take for granted all that we have achieved in this country. He told me to be ever careful and protective of the reputation of our people, to fight any slight to who we are, and to always work to put forth the truest and best vision of Italian Americans and our contributions to this great country of ours. It was invaluable advice from a man who always kept those rules himself.
Tonight, my home state lost a great Governor, our nation lost one of the most captivating orators and inspiring leaders of our time, and the Italian American community lost a true and constant champion. I lost a personal hero. And if I close my eyes, I can be back in that living room watching that empty podium and holding my dad’s hand. The sense of mourning is exactly the same.
NIAF President John M. Viola
January 1, 2015