At a quick glance, he could have been mistaken for Tony Bennett, but this man was not a singer, he was a family man and entrepreneur who lived the American Dream. Michael Anthony Dattilo’s life came full circle from a humble upbringing in Italy. Dattilo was born in Maida, Calabria on July 21, 1940, in the impoverished south. While Italy recovered from the impact of World War II, more than 600,000 Italians emigrated to the United States from 1946 – 1970. Dattilo was one of them. His life in the United States began as he stepped off the Ocean Liner SS Christoforo Columbo and, fittingly, his burial was on October 9, 2023 on Columbus Day. The SS Christoforo Columbo’s maiden voyage was July 15, 1954 following the path of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea to the Land of Opportunity. Dattilo's journey began on Good Friday, April 8, 1955, and he never forgot the noisy sounds of the ocean liner on its ten-day trans-Atlantic crossing. He held on to a framed print of the SS Christoforo Columbo that was given to him a few years ago.
Dattilo’s family surrounded him on his last day of life in this world on October 2, 2023 after a brief battle with cancer. Only at the very end of his fulfilling life could something slow Dattilo down. In 1955, Dattilo, accompanied by his parents and three sisters, made the journey to Nyack, New York, where they set down roots and forged their life in America. Upon their arrival in New York, Dattilo used skills from his homeland to embark on a career in the field of construction and development. His professional journey took him from being a self-made oil marketer and distributor to a hotel and real estate developer, restaurateur, and venture capitalist. Starting from modest beginnings, he climbed the ladder of success, transitioning from owning a small hair salon to ultimately acquiring his first gas station and founding Super Value Oil, which expanded its presence throughout New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and beyond.
In the 1970s, Dattilo began his own family and eventually relocated to the picturesque Connecticut shoreline, where he discovered his dream home. At the age of 40, he purchased the historic, beach front Bill Hahn Inn in Westbrook, Connecticut, and with determination and vision, transformed it into the renowned Water's Edge Resort and Spa. Dattilo dedicated himself wholeheartedly to creating a haven where families could forge enduring memories. Like his family, others could share life-long memories by the sea at Dattilo's resort. At 70, he made a move to Naples, Florida, enjoying a climate reminiscent of his southern Italian birthplace. Dattilo, never one to retire or slow down, channeled his active business acumen into a new real estate development company, Five Diamonds, a tribute to his five beloved children.
Despite his ardent dedication to building and development, Dattilo’s one true love in life was the precious time spent with family and friends. He was known for his generous spirit, often hosting family gatherings marked by delectable cuisine, fine wine, love, and abundant laughter, with open arms of a welcoming Italian family.
Dattilo’s parents, sisters, children, and grandchildren knew him as son, brother, father, and grandfather. According to his children, nothing was more important to him than his family. To Italian Americans like me, who did not know him personally, knew of him – an Italian immigrant who, through hard-work, commitment, and a love of his new country, made it big. Italian Americans up and down the shoreline knew an Italian owned Water’s Edge. It made us proud. Dattilo paved his own path of success in a foreign land, made a new home, and now his legacy gives hope to every immigrant pursing the American Dream.
Vincent Casanova has a B.A. in History from SCSU, a Masters of Religious Studies, M.A.R. (non denominational) from Yale University, and he has taught for 35 years in Public Education (27 years at the high school level and two years at the College of Greater New Haven State of Connecticut Technical College). On October 8, 2023, Historian and Educator Vincent Casanova read his poem written in 2014 in front of the empty pedestal where the Christopher Columbus statue that was dedicated to "Gli Italiani di New Haven" once stood. His words from 2014 foreshadowed events six years later that led to the Columbus Statue in Wooster Square being removed and taken from the Italians of Connecticut. Here is Casanova's poem:
A Statue in the Park (Listen on YouTube)
Not in the center of the city,
In the center of a neighborhood.
In a place called Wooster Square,
That's where your statue stood.
Always there in the morning
And long after dark.
A monument of stone and steel,
A statue in the park.
To the sons and daughters of Italy
An enduring symbol of pride.
Like all those patron saints,
Always on their side.
You stood for undaunting courage
And pious humility.
Left convention behind you
And faced life's open sea.
And through the vagaries of politics
Have stolen some of your fame,.
No amount of revisionist history
Will ever tarnish your name.
It's sad that such tireless exploration
Never pleased your benefactor, the queen.
But the opening of a new world
Was a vision not foreseen.
Yes, your new friends in the neighborhood
Came with visions of their own.
They left the miseries of an old world
For the hope of a better home.
Today I found my daughter’s social studies project that she wrote when she was a freshman in high school. She was asked to interview her grandparents and learn more about their parents and their life stories as Italian Americans.
What a family treasure she created. By interviewing my parents and my wife’s parents she uncovered the essence of why so many Italian Americans found success and prosperity in America.
Her conversation with them clearly revealed the incredible challenges her great grandparents experienced and how difficult it was to leave their homes in Italy to start a new life here in America.
The circumstances were not all the same between the two families, but there was a consensus that their love for family and commitment to providing for their families was their primary duty and purpose. No matter how hard they worked when Sunday came it was family time. This is where my grandparents nurtured family conversations with their children, and it is also what I experienced with my parents at the family dinner table.
It was at these family gatherings that I learned how to respect our elders and appreciate who they were. The word extended family is synonymous with Italians. I not only was taught how to love, respect, and live with integrity from my parents, but I also learned these important traits to building character from my aunts and grandparents.
My home environment became the basis for whom I became as a person. The fact that I worked together in a family business partnership with my parents became my compass as to how to treat people by having compassion and kindness while at the same time have a sense of gratitude for having the opportunity to prosper by being an American. They were living the American dream.
My parents and in laws were loved and respected by all their peers socially and in business. My father was an iconic and most regarded person in the entire company of Tupperware. He helped to build not only his business but others as well. My parents were generous not only with their wealth but their time.
It is not very complicated or at all a mystery as to who or why I am the person I try to be today. I learned that from not only my parents, but also from our rich and vibrant Italian American culture.
Ok. Here it comes. Those trite over used words that people preach to others if a person is to lead a good life. Ready? Integrity, loyalty, person of conviction, generosity (what goes around, comes around), service, and friendships. This is what my big, fat Italian family taught me not by just with words but with their actions. I always felt loved and appreciated and this is what my wife and I have also created for our children and family members.
To sum up my short story of who I am or why, let me quote the last paragraph my daughter wrote in her social study family history paper.
“When I think about my grandparents and the times in which they grew up I am left with a sense of pride and respect for what they accomplished. In a way they were an example of the American dream, that any person can come to this country, or be the children of humble immigrants and still find riches and happiness in America. This project has helped to give me a better feeling of who my grandparents were and what kind of people they were and still are today.” Jackie Damigella
We owe much to our parents and it is our duty and love for them. They are the type of people that love people and always continue to show kindness and a genuine interest in understanding and helping others.
It’s the only way I know to be, and it has always nourished my soul.
A Visit from Zio Luigi
Just a little context before I talk about my Great Uncle Luigi DeDonato and his visit to us in the 1950s. As those of a certain age know, the memories and scars of WW2 were still a part of our consciousness in the 1950s. Our family lived on the edge of Westville [New Haven], along with many Jewish neighbors for whom the horror of the holocaust was a fresh and seething wound.
Around our kitchen table neighborhood women gathered regularly to play cards with my mother betting dimes and quarters, all hoping for a good night that could net winnings of six or seven dollars. Jewish women would speak about the horrors of the holocaust. I clearly remember hearing one woman’s statement that stayed with me, “It was the Germans. It wasn’t the Italians. The Italians stopped it where they could.” Her statement is largely true according to this article by the United States Holocaust Museum. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/italy
That said, Zio Luigi had been both the Sindaco (mayor) and the Blackshirt officer in charge of San Lorenzo Maggiore. Luigi told stories of the war, the German occupation, and hiding Jewish families both Italian and foreign in their mountain town to protect them from the Nazis.
He was asked, “What would have happened if the German’s had found you were hiding Jewish people?” He responded, as his Italian was translated to my young self, “Then we would have been killed too; but in Italy we don’t allow people to die because of their religion.”
Zio Luigi who was childless and looking for an heir offered to take me to Italy for the summer. For better or worse, as a nine or ten-year-old who didn’t speak Italian I refused out of fear. I never saw Zio Luigi again but I’ve always remembered his words that remind me to try to be courageous and to do the right thing.
Here is the story of Gaspar "Gus" Marrone: My great uncle, Gaspar B. Marrone, touched many lives through his service in World War II, his work as a carpentry instructor, and his volunteer activities for numerous charities.
Gaspar (known as "Gus" for short) was born in Philadelphia but spent most of his life in Boston. His parents, Egidio and Caterina Marrone, were Italian immigrants. He had four brothers named Michael, Rudy, Joey, and Al, and two sisters named Catherine and Cina (my grandmother).
In 1943, shortly after graduating from high school, Gaspar joined the Army, fighting on the front lines in Japan. He reenlisted in 1945. He attained the rank of Corporal and earned two Bronze Stars, a Good Conduct Medal, the Philippine Liberation Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, the Army of Occupation Medal with a Japanese Clasp, the WWII Victory Medal, and two overseas bars. He was honorably discharged in 1948.
After the war, Gaspar dedicated his life to helping others. In the 1950s he began working at the Spanish Center in Boston, teaching woodworking and other technical skills. He had a special talent for fixing things and figuring out how things worked. He also had a gift for connecting with the "tough" kids and serving as a mentor.
Outside of work, Gaspar volunteered at the Church of the Holy Cross in the South End of Boston, as well as various homeless shelters. Additionally, each Christmas, he would fill a big yellow bus with toys and drive around to deliver them to poor children.
Although Gaspar never married or had children, he had numerous nieces, nephews, and friends. I had the pleasure of getting to know my Uncle Gus better during the final months of his life. He was truly one of the kindest people one could hope to meet, with a twinkle in his eye and a great sense of humor. Gus passed away from lung cancer in 2014 at age 89. He exemplified the values of self-reliance, dignity, and strong religious faith through the very end of his life. He is buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
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