A Columbus Day Parade float on Fifth Avenue in New York City. (Photograph by Sean Unruh.)
On 8 October, a few days before Columbus Day in 1972, RN spoke —without text or notes— to a dinner at the Sheraton Park Hotel sponsored by Amerito (a federation of Italian-American organizations in the Washington D.C. area) and the Knights of Columbus.
Here are some excerpts from his recorded remarks:
Now, ladies and gentlemen, if I may take just a little of your time to pay my own special tribute to the organizations that are represented here, and also to the day that will be celebrated all day tomorrow, Columbus Day. May I speak of what that day means to America. May I speak also of what the Italian heritage means to America.
In speaking to you on this occasion, I, of course, could mention a number of areas in which people of Italian background have contributed to the greatness of this country. For example, in the field of government, the man on my right, Secretary Volpe. There are others. We have honored one of the top labor leaders of America, he, of course, of Italian background.
But whatever area you pick, whether in the area of business or politics or labor, you will find that those of Italian background have made their way to the top, and they are justly honored. It seemed to me quite appropriate that your program last year was at the Kennedy Center and that opera stars from all over the world were brought there, because everyone knows not only of the Italian contribution to America but to the world, in the field of music.
John Volpe suggested that perhaps some of you in this great audience might not know that that band that you have heard tonight is also one that we owe to our Italian background. When Thomas Jefferson was first trying to get an appropriate band for the White House, he found that there were not enough good musicians in the then new Capital of the United States, and so he, who had traveled much in the world, sent people to Italy. They recruited Italians to come to join the Marines, and the Marine Band came from Italy. Now, if any of you think that that story is apocryphal just for this occasion, I can tell you something that I know has been checked historically, as has that story, and that is that over one-half of all of the leaders of this distinguished band, which is called the President’s Band–it is the one that always plays in the White House–over one-half of them, over 180 years, have been men of Italian background. So it is the President’s Band.
But when we describe professions, the profession of politics, labor leaders, business, music, and the like, we could, of course, describe various groups who have contributed to the greatness of America. Let me indicate to you some other factors that I think more closely touch the subject in which we are all interested tonight, what those of Italian background have contributed to this country over the years.
….We see one of those factors very clearly, and that is, putting it quite bluntly, hard work. Italian immigrants came to this country by the hundreds of thousands, and then by the millions. They came here not asking for something, asking only for the opportunity to work. They have worked and they have built.
I think it can truly be said that they, along with many other groups who have come from all over the world to America, have helped to build this country. They are the builders of America, and, consequently, we owe a debt to this group for what they have done in building America, for what they have done in teaching us all that the dignity of work is what made this country what it is and that we must always respect the dignity of work and the dignity of those who lead the workers of America….
There is a second feature which is represented by this head table tonight. Those of Italian background bring with them a very deep religious faith. We in America have varying religious backgrounds, but the day when America loses its religious faith, this will cease to be a great country. Those of Italian background, with their deep religious faith, have helped to sustain the strength of America, the moral strength, which is more important than all the military strength and the economic strength in the world…..
There is another factor that this evening reminds us of. Those of Italian background have a deep love of family….. But most important of all is the fact that those of Italian background, along with so many other immigrant groups who have come to this country, are proud of where they came from, where their parents or grandparents came from, but they are prouder still to be Americans.
As we think of that particular fact, I would like to put it in terms of what we really owe to so many groups who have come to America from abroad and have added character and strength and fiber to this country’s idealism, to the love of country which sustains us through difficult times and other times as well…..
Let me say, as one who came not from an Italian background, but from a not very affluent background, that I always feel very grateful that I was born in America. But also, I always recall that in the term I have been President the moments that perhaps have touched me the most have been those when I have attended citizenship ceremonies–one in Chicago, one in New York, one in Washington– and new citizens have come by, just getting their American citizenship for the first time. Whether they happened to be from Poland or Italy or Germany or the Orient or wherever they were, more often than not tears would be in their eyes when they said, “I am so proud now to be an American citizen.”
Let us be proud to be Americans tonight.