UNICO (Unity, Neighborliness, Integrity, Charity, and Opportunity) is celebrating 100 years in 2022, and We the Italians wants to celebrate with all our Unicans friends.
This is why we are happy to welcome a past President of UNICO National, Mr. Paul Alongi, who will help us know more about this historical family of Italian Americans that has been representing the best of this community for 100 years now
Mr. Alongi, welcome to We the Italians. You were born in Newark, New Jersey, the American State with the highest percentage of Italian Americans. Please, share with our readers some of your memories of growing Italian in the garden State, your involvement with UNICO and something about the history of this wonderful organization…
My father, Frank Alongi came from Palermo in Sicily. At the age of 16, he escaped from Mussolini and he never went back and as a result, never saw his mother and a younger sister again. He did have two brothers who were already on the United States, and he joined his older brother Joe in Newark, NJ. My mother, Concetta Livolsi, was born and lived in Italian Harlem, New York City, from parents who came from Catania, also Sicily. While visiting her cousins in Newark, she met my father. They were married a short time later.
I come from the Italian American neighborhood in Newark. Growing up I was bilingual with the Sicilian dialect. My lunch mate for eight years at the Abington Avenue Grammar school was my friend Frankie Valli, his real name was Frank Casteluccio. My Brother Tony's best friend was Joe Pesci. Joe was a country cowboy singer in the days before he went on to Hollywood. During those days, not too many people went to college yet alone to law school. I was one of the first to graduate college and law school from our neighborhood. Waterbury and Torrington, both in Connecticut, were the first chapters in UNICO. Trenton, the first New Jersey chapter was formed by Dr. Joseph Panteleone in 1930. Dr. Panteleone was a personal friend of Dr. Anthony P. Vastola, the founder of UNICO. Dr. Vastola created UNICO as a local club to welcome all the Italian Americans who were discriminated and kept from being members of the local professional and community clubs.
My wife came from Bloomfield, a neighboring town. She also has Sicilian heritage. My brother in law, Nick Sidoti, encouraged me to play centerfield on the Bloomfield UNICO fast pitch softball team. They needed a ringer. It did not take me long to realize that these men were different. They were into the betterment of the community and so I joined as a charter member in 1956. In my neighborhood in Newark, people were living day by day. No interest in the community or even others. When I joined Bloomfield UNICO, I was able to witness something else. These men were businessmen striving to be community leaders trying to lift the image of the Italian Americans in an all-white community that knew nothing about Italians. I was able to learn from them and thus developed character and ambition. Joining UNICO was a life-changing event for my family and me: it led me to do much more bigger things that I could never conceived of doing. From that point on, UNICO became a major part of our lives.
The Newark chapter was very prominent and proactive in those days. They already had four National Presidents from within their organization. They were: Dr. Hugo Sernechia, a Seton Hall Literature Professor, published the first UNICO National Newspaper. John Paolercio, a well known funeral director. John Cervase, a great lawyer and President of the Newark School Board during the Newark City riots, nationally known as a defender of Italian Americans. Al Miele, who would also serve as executive director and secretary, without compensation, well into his eighties: he was known as Mr. UNICO.
During the fifties and early sixties, I was involved in going to college and Law School nights. I was also playing music in neighbor nightclubs so I didn't have time for UNICO. I had a big band using my stage name of Sonny Long. This band had great musicians who later went onto Vegas and Hollywood. We backed and played shows with Tony Bennet, Al Martino, Jerry Vale, Connie Francis, The Four Aces, Dion and the Belmonts, Xavier Cugat and Abby Lane, Domenico Modugno.
When I became a lawyer, in 1965, I started to focus on UNICO. I was elected President of our Chapter in 1967 and went to my first convention in Milwaukee, WI. I met Ted Mazza, National President, and he told me he had been an officer of the National Civic League formed by Antonio Rizzuto in the thirties (the National Rizzuto Award is named in his honor). The league was in Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Chicago and had women members. After several meeting with other Unicans, it convinced him to have the League join UNICO. It was a very difficult scenario for them to accept, because back in those days their women members were not allowed to join. The saving grace was that they formed Women's Auxiliaries of UNICO and that allowed the League joined us. Thus our organization became national, also thanks to John Cervase and Al Miele who would take the train to Arizona, Omaha or Milwaukee to meet with Ted Mazza or Fred Ossuanna. The trip would take days and sometimes much longer because of the weather. It was very costly and they paid that from their own funds. Finally they made the deal in the late forties and Ted Mazza became National President in 1954. These were our real pioneers. John Cervase and Al Miele were truly UNICO heroes.
In the seventies, in the framework of UNICO there were two foundations. The UNICO Foundation and the Mental Health Foundation. In the early seventies, the UNICO Foundation was floundering and close to extinction. It became a major discussion at every meeting. The principal issue was how the money was being invested. Anthony Fornelli took it upon himself and turned it around within a short time. Tony was a brilliant lawyer and very successful businessman. He was very instrumental in making the organization and foundation what it is today. Over these many years we did a lot of things together for the betterment of UNICO. My dear friend passed away two years ago. Tony was also responsible for founding Casa Italiana and Fra Noi in Chicago. Past National President Dom Frinzi also played a major part in the survival and growth of the UNICO Foundation. Dom was really special, a great orator and an intellectual. He ran for Governor of Wisconsin and was defeated. He was the first Italian American Governor candidate ever.
The UNICO Foundation lived on and as of today, it is doing extremely well. Credit that to John Di Napoli who served as President of the Foundation for the last thirteen years until his retirement. Also noted are the many scholarships funded in the millions by the Torraco family. Bernard Torraco was National President in 1959. The family's fine works and generosity have been directed by his son, Ralph, who has been an active and caring member for the last forty years.
An interesting controversy, at almost every National meeting ,was the location of the National office. I remember that it was in St. Louis, MO for some years because the leaders in the Midwest wanted that presence. Then it came back to Bloomfield, NJ for some time only to have it relocate to Chicago, IL. After about five years, it came back to Bloomfield for at least another twenty five years and then to Fairfield, NJ. Along with the location issue came the appointment of the Executive Director. That position was always hotly argued and contested.
In 1972, UNICO National celebrated its 50th anniversary in Waterbury, CT. The National President, Dr. John Basile and the Vice Presidents were invited to meet with Dr. Vastola at his house. Our founder was in his early nineties but sharp as a tack. I was taken back as to how astonished and amazed he was that the organization had advanced so much over the years. He was emotional in thanking us for doing all the fine work of UNICO and grateful for all the chapters in existence. In a nutshell, he said that he never conceived that the little Italian American organization that he founded would ever be what it was fifty years later. His son, Dr. John Vastola, attended the celebration that night and read a stirring message from his father to the members. Meeting Dr. Vastola was one of the most exciting moments of my UNICO life. Today as I am writing this, I realize that I may be the only living member that met and talked with the Founder of our great organization. What a privilege!
I became National President in 1975. Julius La Rosa, a very well respected Italian American entertainer, and I were very close friends and partners in several businesses. Julius was the poster boy for Cooley's Anemia, a dreaded disease affecting Italian Americans. Their National Organization leaders came to the convention at my invitation and as a result, UNICO voted there to make it an ongoing project. It still exists today and UNICO throughout the years has financed many research projects. Fifty years ago, a person suffering from Cooley's Anemia lived to the ripe age of twenty. Today the life expectancy is well into their sixties. I am very humble and proud to say that while I was National President I was able to introduce not only the Cooley’s Anemia program but also Anti Bias as national projects.
At that same convention, UNICO had the privilege of honoring Ella T Grasso, Italian American, the first woman elected governor of a State, Connecticut. Her presence and talks were well appreciated by the attendees and the media. We used her as an example of why we should have women in UNICO. But it didn't happen then and only not until 1996 when women were allowed to join. In 1994, several ladies, who were primarily wives of Past National Presidents and leaders, formed a committee to advance the issue of bringing women into UNICO National. The leader was Millie Botti, wife of John Botti, my wife Toni, Elaine Biribin, wife of Renato Biribin, Fran Licato, wife of Frank Licato, Patti Alfano. wife of Dr. Manny Alfano, Anti Bias legend. Past National President Kathhleen Strozza, 2008, became the first female member and first female president. Past National President Ann Walko, 2015, became the second female president.
During the nineties, UNICO was able to play a big part in the endowment of the Italian Studies Chairs. This movement was fostered by Past National Presidents Frank Cannata, Michael Mariniello and Joe Coccia. Reading from a report dated March 14, 2009, it indicates that UNICO National had been responsible for fourteen endowments representing ten million dollars in all. All of the above brings us to modern times. Our members should know some of the history and become acquainted with our successes. Most current day members have no knowledge of what went on before and I am glad to be able to impart that information to fill that void.
UNICO has been a viable organization for 100 years. One can visualize the effect of its efforts and contributions during the course of those many years. Obviously it is tremendous and somewhat mind boggling. Yet the average member does not see the grand picture. That is because their measure is based on their local accomplishments. For those of us that see the big picture, UNICO is and has been a great Italian American National Service organization that we are extremely proud of.
Which are the actual main activities of UNICO right now?
Our main activities are preservation and promulgation of Italian and Italian American Heritage and Culture; practicing the objectives of the UNICO Foundation helping in topics such as Scholarships, Mental Health, Cooley’s Anemia and other meaningful charities; serving local communities where the chapters are based; and anti bias activities and seminars.
One of the main worries I’ve always heard from senior leaders in Italian American organizations is how to engage younger generations, those who have grown or are growing several years after those who came here during the mass migration years, even before UNICO was born. What’s your idea about this?
Some UNICO chapters have been successful in attracting younger members but across the board, I don’t see a significant advance. We have youth programs that chapters have promoted to fulfill an interest in their parents becoming members, and some chapters have come up with programs of interest to the younger generation. UNICO National recognizes this challenge however it has not been surmounted. My chapter has been somewhat innovative with high school intern programs and a youth program. Our leaders have been diligent in bringing a fair amount of members in their late 20’s and thirties: however the bulk of our chapter membership remains in the sixties and seventies.
Another major suggestion, once the younger member joins, is to keep that member engaged in the activity of the chapter. I say this because I have seen younger members leave because there was no place for them. All in all, throughout my years, the younger member issue has always been paramount.
What do you think about the attacks against Columbus? Is this something that goes back to many years ago, or something just recent, as far as you can remember?
This year the Columbus holiday and statue controversy was pretty calm, as opposed to the past two or three years. Many of our chapters have statues and did a great job in protecting them from vandalism and being removed. Their efforts were mainly political, rallying the community in their favor. The members have fought to replace the statues in those areas where they had been removed. There has been some success therein.
A major effort was undertaken to keep Columbus Day as the holiday. Example would be the Rockaway (NJ) School board moving to eliminate Columbus Day as the holiday. The chapter and the district rallied the community to put pressure on the school board members. As a result, they gave in and withdrew their effort to eliminate the holiday. This happened in many areas but our members responded and overall were successful. My personal opinion is that we have seen the worst of this problem.
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