Richard A. DiLiberto, Jr ( Chairman of the Delaware Commission on Italian Heritage and Culture)

Anche il Delaware, il "First State", è italiano!

Oct 03, 2016 3109 ITA ENG

Delaware has a nickname that says everything: it is called the "First State". This is just one of the things we talk about with the guest of this new interview. Our friend Richard A. DiLiberto, Jr. is one of the major personalities of the Italian American community in Delaware.

Let's discover what he does to represent this wonderful community, and why Delaware is called the "First State": Italy has some credit for this, too!

Richard, you are the Chairman of the Delaware Commission on Italian Heritage and Culture. As far as we know, only Delaware and New Jersey have a similar institution. What's the mission of your Commission, and how do you operate?

The Commission, founded in 2005, is established by the Delaware legislature and it consists of nine members: three members are appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, three by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and three by the Governor of the State of Delaware, one of whom is designated as the Chairman.

All the members serve with a state-wide jurisdiction and they represent all portions of the State of Delaware. Our mission is to establish, maintain and develop cultural ties between Italians and Italian Americans, foster special interest in historical and cultural backgrounds of both groups as well as the economic, political, social and artistic lives of Italy and the United States ... and also to help establish or promote the Italian language in the State of Delaware.

We follow the authority of the Secretary of State of Delaware and we serve our terms for three years. We are eligible for reappointment only with the approval of the Governor, of the President of the State Senate and of the Speaker of the State House. There are no limits of number of reappointments.

We know that there's a very alive and active Little Italy in Wilmington, with many activities. Please tell us more about the neighborhood...

Delaware has an estimated 10% of the population of Italian descent. Approximately 75 to 85 thousand citizens in Delaware are of Italian descent and the Little Italy neighborhood is located in Wilmington Delaware: many of the people who emigrated from Italy settled there.

Many of them came from the community of Olevano Sul Tusciano in the Salerno province, and many established community relations there and built a beautiful church named after St. Anthony of Padua.

The Saint Anthony of Padua Parish became the major Italian American church in Wilmington and the community grew around the church, this beautiful stone church is very similar to some of the churches you would see in Italy.

The priest who actually built the church came directly from Italy as a young man and his name was Father Roberto Balducelli. Father Balducelli passed away last year and he was 100 years old. He was the person who really deserves the credit for developing the community of the Little Italy around Saint Anthony's church.

Still nowadays, every Summer around Saint Anthony's church during the month of June the beautiful Festa Italia takes place and brings thousands of people to the State of Delaware and the city of Wilmington to celebrate the Italian Culture and Heritage.

Besides Father Balducelli, are there other personalities, or places, or facts that have had or still have a particular importance in describing Italy in Delaware, other than Wilmington's Little Italy?

I think we should focus on the fact that an Italian actually was one of the first to navigate the shores of Delaware and that was Giovanni Da Verrazzano from Greve in Chianti, Italy.

In 1524 Giovanni Da Verrazzano set sail in a very small ship called "The Dauphine" and came over to the coast of what is now the United States from Cape Fear, North Carolina, travelling all the way up north to New York where he stopped and then returned back to Italy. But he did navigate the shores of the state of Delaware, which he called "The Garden of Eden" for he thought it was so beautiful.

There is now a monument we erected to honor Verrazzano, in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. It is right on the boardwalk, facing the ocean where Verrazzano came past in 1524, and we've now established a Sisters City relationship with the town where he was born and where his castle still remains: Greve in Chianti in Italy. We have made trade missions to Greve; students, government officers and teachers from there have come to Delaware and learned more about our State. We're very proud of the relationship between Greve in Chianti and Rehoboth Beach.

We also have a Sisters City relationship between Wilmington, our largest city, and Olevano sul Tusciano. Besides, every fall in Wilmington we do the Vendemmia, the wine harvest, and we invite our friends from Greve and Olevano to come and experience the Vendemmia Festival.

We also have established a garden in Rehoboth Beach in honor of Verrazzano and Amerigo Vespucci called "The Garden of the Navigators" to celebrate the spirit of exploration of those two Italian explorers and their help in establishing the discovery of America.

What's your opinion about what's happening against Christopher Columbus?

We hold Columbus very dear in Delaware, we still have very honored celebrations for Columbus every October and we think that Columbus is a great Italian Hero and also an American Hero for discovering America. Our organization, as well as the NIAF National Italian American Foundation, has continued to celebrate Columbus and has continued to maintain that Columbus Day should be an official holiday in the United States to honor his spirit of discovery.

What's the story of the Italian emigration to Delaware?

Many people arrived at Ellis Island in New York City, when they emigrated to the United States. Many of them then moved to Delaware because it was only a short distance, about 2 hours, from New York City. Delaware is the midpoint between New York City and Washington DC.

When they came to Delaware, some of them came to work in agriculture; others came to work in mills, in the factories; others came because they had relatives: their family had already settled here. Between them, many settled in Wilmington, in the Little Italy where we now see a large Italian population.

We only have three counties: New Castle County, Kent County and Sussex County. We have a very active UNICO Chapter in Sussex County and those Italian immigrants yearly continue to honor students of Italian American descent who have overcome great adversity and have achieved good grades with an award called the "Brian Piccolo Award".

Please, tell us more about him

Brian Piccolo was a very courageous American football player who played with the Chicago Bears and died of cancer, after fighting it as a young man. We keep his memory alive, of course together with the memory of our ancestors who came to Delaware without any money, without knowing the language and basically got off the ship and started working.

Brian Piccolo was not born in Delaware. He was born in Massachusetts in 1943 and he died in New York in 1970. There's a very famous movie about him, which you may have heard about, called "Brian's Song" which was a very popular movie. He was a running back for the Chicago Bears in the National Football League and he lived only to the age of 26 because of an aggressive form of cancer. The important thing about Brian is that he was the first NFL player who agreed to be roommate with a player of African American descent, so he set the stage for openness and fairness in race relations in the NFL. His roommate, Gale Sayers, was one of the greatest football players of all times.

Brian Piccolo made the team in 1965 and he made the main squad in 1966 and in 1967 he got more time as a tailback backing up Gale Sayers; his biggest year in the NFL was 1968 where he had 450 yards, a 3.7 average, several touchdowns and several receptions. Then in 1969 he started playing fullback ... but then he became ill. It's a very interesting story!

It sure is! How about the actual Italian presence in Delaware, nowadays?

We do have a very active Italian Language Department at the University of Delaware, in Newark, and many students get degrees in Italian and go on to teach. So, many professors at the University of Delaware were born in Italy, or studied in Italy, or their parents were born in Italy and they came here as young children.

We continue to do an Italian Language school for students every Summer financed by our commission, and we bring in Italian language teachers and professors to educate students in Italian language and culture. We've been doing that now for 8 years, 2 weeks every Summer, and it's called "La Mia Piazza": it teaches children basic Italian language.

How is Made in Italy in Delaware? Is there a particular business sector that is booming?

Delaware has a very large agricultural economy, including the production of chickens and livestock, and of course farming: soybean, corn and nursery products. We also are a center for science and biotechnology. And of course, Delaware is also the Corporate Capital of America: we have more corporations established in the State of Delaware than in any other State.

We have a very large banking business, and we also have a very educated workforce: we have more people with PHDs doctorates working in the State of Delaware than most other States.

We have a very popular and involved Court system with our Delaware Court of Chancery, our Superior Court and our Supreme Court which litigate many high profile cases, which are used in the casebooks around the country to teach law students about Corporate Law and why Delaware is the Corporate Capital of America.

Besides, in Delaware, as well as in New York and Philadelphia, fashion and design are important. We also value our art, we have beautiful art museums and the entire State is considered a National Park.

Additionally wines are important here, many of which are produced in Italy: we buy them because we are the Italian Commission and because we think Italian wines are the best!

From October to December 2014 we welcomed in Wilmington about 120 some art masterpieces that had been stolen by unscrupulous art traffickers and then recovered by the Italian Guardia di Finanza: mosaics, statues, jewelries, frescos, ceramics.

Many of the stories of these art pieces were made popular in a movie starring George Clooney called "Monuments Men", which is a very important historical documentary about Italy recovering this stolen art, and this exhibit was open to the public: it was the first time that recovered stolen art was accessible to citizens in the United States.

Delaware also has a very important role in the history of the birth of the United States: a history where Caesar Rodney, an Italian American, played a key part...

The State of Delaware is very important to the history of the United States because on December, 7th 1787 we were the first State to ratify the United States Constitution: then the other 12 original colonies followed Delaware and we became the United States that everyone recognizes today. People should know that it was Delaware that took initial steps to get this process started!

Caesar (Cesare) Rodney signed on behalf of Delaware the Declaration of Independence. He was actually Italian: he was the individual who voted to break the tie, for Independence, in Delaware's delegation.

He rode on a horseback from Delaware to Philadelphia and when he did that he was suffering from facial cancer and he was very sick. He literally had to tie a handkerchief around his face because his face was afflicted by cancer, and the story goes that when he got to Philadelphia and cast his vote he collapsed right after he voted for Independence!

So, we still honor Caesar Rodney with a beautiful statue in Rodney Square in Wilmington and he also appears on the back of our currency, on the quarter, riding his horse very fast from Delaware to Philadelphia to cast his vote for Independence!

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