By: Basil M. Russo, ISDA President
My father was the child of two Italian immigrants who were born in Longi, Sicily.
His mother, Rosalia, died at 32 years of age shortly after giving birth to her sixth child.
My grandfather, Basilio, from whom I received my name, was a tough Sicilian immigrant who found himself with five young children to raise (the sixth child, Domenico, had died at the age of 2).
One of the children was sent to an orphanage, another one to relatives, and three boys were left with Basilio and were raised in a poor neighborhood made up of southern blacks and Italian immigrants who had all traveled to Cleveland looking for work.
Basilio was very typical of the Italian immigrant men of his time—hardworking, unaffectionate to his sons, and a stern disciplinarian. Being raised without the love and affection of a mother, my father, Anthony, had a difficult childhood.
In high school, my father worked on the school newspaper and boxed. After graduating, he enlisted in the Air Force to fight in WWII, as did so many younger men of his generation. He rose to the rank of 1st Lieutenant and served as a bombardier on a B-25.
After the war ended, my father had the good fortune to meet Domenica Cancasci, and they were married. I was the first of four sons. My Dad was a product of his upbringing.
He worked hard, showed his sons no affection, and was a stern disciplinarian. However, he was both a perceptive and intelligent man who understood the importance of education.
My Dad always regretted the fact that he never had the opportunity to become a lawyer. In his mind, being an attorney was a respected profession that would provide for a good life. So, for as long as I can remember, all my father ever told me was that I had to become a lawyer.
Not wanting to disappoint my father, I dutifully graduated from college, went to law school, opened my own law firm, and ultimately became a judge.
As my career progressed, I know my father became prouder and prouder of me, but would never tell me so.
My father’s other avocation was politics. He was a great orator and had a strong desire to help the working class. He became the Democratic Ward leader of our Italian-American ward, and was later elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, serving as Assistant Minority Leader.
In my continuing effort to earn my father’s respect, I was elected to Cleveland City Council at the age of 24, and served as majority leader before running for mayor at age 32.
My political career later allowed me to serve as judge on the Court of Common Pleas, as well as the Court of Appeals.
My father died in 1985 at the age of 65, while I was serving on the bench.
Not once in my entire life do I ever remember my father telling me he loved me. Those were not words spoken by men of his generation to their sons.
But I always knew how very much I meant to him, because he pushed me, and pushed me to become the very best man I could be.
By example, he taught me the value of hard work, the obligation I had to serve my country, the importance of loving and caring for my wife, and the need to push my children to excel in life.
I, as many men of my generation, am very comfortable in telling my children how much I love them, and I often do.
As I’ve grown older and reflected on my life, I’ve come to understand how strong a child’s desire is to make their parents proud of them, never wanting to disappoint or embarrass them.
And this motivation has certainly played an important role in my life.
And I’ve also come to understand that every accomplishment I’ve achieved in my life, whether it be family-oriented or professionally-oriented, was due to my Italian-American father who knew how to both educate and motivate his son.
I, as my father, am a product of my upbringing.
I never told my father how much I loved him. But I do very often now, and I know that he hears me.
This article first appeared in La Nostra Voce, ISDA’s monthly newspaper. Join ISDA and receive a 12-month subscription that chronicles Italian culture, heritage, cuisine and more.