A few months ago, when the so-called “sequester” caused the Blue Angels to cancel their annual Fleet Week performance in San Francisco, there were more than a few members of the Italian Community who worried about how that might impact the Italian Heritage Parade on Columbus Day. When the government shut-down happened a few weeks ago, and the announcement came that there wouldn’t be any military marching bands—or military presence at all—even more people worried. Like the rest of us, I wondered if we would be able to pull this off.
Saturday evening, after spending an hour trying to figure out how to tie my bow tie for the Italian Heritage Grand Ball at the Fairmont, I happened to glance at one of the historical photographs on the wall of my home office. It was an image of a Columbus Day parade taken by the “Dean of North Beach photographers” J. B. Monaco. The photograph showed a glorious parade on Columbus Avenue that took place more than a century ago.
The parade in the picture happened only a few years after the Great Earthquake and Fire that completely destroyed North Beach. I realized that not only did they not have any Blue Angels to draw crowds to the neighborhood back then, but when the Wright brothers flew for the first time in history, the Columbus Day parade had already been going on for thirty-five years.
It’s always nice to be able to honor our men and women in uniform during Fleet Week, and to be amazed by the aerobatics of F18 jets flying in close formation a few inches over our heads. But with or without that mighty military presence, Columbus Day would go on again, as it had 144 times before.
As I attended the opening salvo of the Columbus Day festivities at City Hall, and then at the Italian Consulate, I couldn’t help but be touched by seeing Queen Isabella Angela Riccio Silva and her Court—consisting of Tarantella Petrocchi, Angelina Ragusa, Brandi Zuffo Allan, Jessica Carrabino, Elyse Vincenzi, Sophia Olivolo Sauvageau, Claire Vincenzi, Audrey Lipari Smith, Caroline Cirelli Castaneda, and retiring queen Gianna Giambolvo Tesler. These girls each strive to symbolize the Italian Community’s dreams, ambitions, and ideals, and they do it with style and grace.
At the Grand Ball held at the Fairmont Hotel, everybody joined together to honor those who have worked so hard in the past to support the community. Former United States Attorney Joseph P. Russoniello was honored as the Grand Marshall. Lloyd G. Stefani, Past President of the Columbus Day Celebration was honored with the Donald A. Casper Italian Heritage Award, and Anna Maria Pierini accepted the Cent’Anni Award on behalf of Fugazi Hall, the original Italian Community Center donated by Commendatore John F. Fugazi, and capably administered all these years by Italian Community Services. Even Esther Bermani Schaukowitch was honored, who is retiring after an incredible ten-year run as Queen Mother. Barbara DeMartini did her usual exceptional job of putting on the party of the year.
When the serious stuff was over, everybody broke bread and danced the night away. The men and women who spent the entire year working their proverbial fingers to the bone for the benefit of the community had a chance to let their hair down and enjoy the comunità that they themselves had sustained for yet another year.
The following morning, everybody gathered at Saints Peter and Paul Church for a Solemn High Mass. Not every Italian is a Catholic, but few would deny that Faith has sustained us as a people in this country. Those who we recently lost were remembered: Donald Casper, Luigi Romani, Frank Pulice and others. Behind the altar sat two Italian priests who everybody has known since childhood. Father Austin Conterno, age 98, and Father Armand Oliveri, age 93, were there as always. Everyone was thinking the same thing—how fortunate we have been to have them, and how precious they and all the senior members of our community are to us.
After Mass, it was time for the parade. At some point in the past, it became necessary to re-name it the “Italian Heritage Parade.” It made it easier to get along with the bureaucrats at City Hall, and was a bit more inclusive, but whatever the official name, it was and always will be the Columbus Day Parade. And even though the Blue Angels and Fleet Week were no-shows, the Community turned out in force.
Tony Passanisi turned in a stellar performance as the parade coordinator. Everybody did their jobs admirably and proudly. Columbus Day Celebration Chairman Steve Leveroni, assisted by his son Joe Leveroni, announced each parade entry from the grandstand across from the church. Photographer Charlie Farruggia and Queen Mother Emerita Rae Mignola have each served on the Board of Directors of Columbus Day Celebration for over four decades, and were hard at work as usual. The rest of the Board of Directors could be seen everywhere doing their parts as well: Past President Marilyn Bermani Baum, Melissa Amato, Frank Billante, Joseph Cervetto III, Clem DeAmicis, RoseAnne DeAmicis, Barbara DeMartini, Ronald Derenzi, Elisa Fanucci, James Fanucchi, Karen Guglielmoni, Tracy DeAmicis McMahan, Joseph Parente, Maria Fassio Pignati, Ugo Pignati, Daniela Romani, Roberta Romani, Anne Warda and John Warda. And of course, Board President John Parente and “Christopher Columbus” Joseph Cervetto, Jr. tied it all together.
After the parade, everybody re-grouped and ended up at the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club, where SFIAC President Al Cipollina, Dinner Chairmen Guido Perego and Joe Figone, and Chef Paul Alioto put on the best Columbus Day dinner in recent memory. The execution was first-rate, the food was out of this world, and the entertainment kept everybody dancing late into the night.
When it was finally all over, I drove home across the Golden Gate Bridge, and it occurred to me how fortunate we are as a community to be able to come together each year and celebrate our heritage. Christopher Columbus may not have been the first person to “discover” what we call the “new world,” but he was the first Italian to arrive, and that alone is cause for us to celebrate. Since 1492, we haven’t stopped coming to this great land. Our hearts may be American, but our blood is Italian, and that is what unites us.
I am so damn proud to be part of this community. And I can hardly wait until next year, when once again we will celebrate the Best Columbus Day Ever.