Paul tells me he has an idea for a column about Italian Americans living in the southwest suburbs. I say, “That’s great, Paul. Are you talking Naperville? Lisle?” In a bad Svengoolie accent, he says, “No, Burr-vynnn.” I try to explain that Berwyn isn’t “South Side,” unless we’re talking baseball. And once I straighten him out geographically and give him some encouragement, I make that irreversible comment, “If you need anything, let me know.” THEN he drops the bomb on me, saying, “I want YOU to write the column.” Feeling a bit like Ralph Kramden, all I can think is “Hamana-hamana-hamana-hamana,” wondering how I’m going to find the time. But all that comes out of my mouth is “Sure!” and Bevenuto a Berwyn was born.
The next thing I wondered was, “Where do I begin?” Paul said I should start out by talking a little bit about myself, so here I go.
I’m a first-generation Italian American who grew up in a working-class family where mio Babbo worked and mia Mama raised five children in a three-bedroom two-flat with a cantina in the basciamente. My grandparents, two sets of aunts and uncles, and seven cousins lived across the street. Needless to say, I never went hungry. I wish every kid out there today could experience the childhood I had growing up, not just having my famiglia so close, but the lifelong friendships I made and the sense of community that Berwyn gave me.
It wasn’t until high school that I discovered that not everyone was Italian and Catholic. It wasn’t that I lived a sheltered life. I’d rather think of it as an insulated one because I was surrounded by good people. My father and grandfather would spend time at their Italian club, and many of the other Italians there were my soccer and baseball coaches and the like. We went to “The Club” for Italian language classes, and I couldn’t wait for the annual picnic to hang out with our extended family members.
The funny thing was my non-Italian friends — Greeks, Czechs, Serbs, Irish, Germans and Poles — were all “Italian by Association.” They were no different than me in their family make-up as first-generation Americans because our families were the basis of our social structure and we all played together, broke bread together, and shared our vino, ouzo and slivovitz together.
Out of high school, my Tata made sure we joined the Italian American Civic Organization of Berwyn because it was our turn to carry on the traditions and mission it was founded on. In 1994, I was elected to a leadership role in the organization as a board member, and for the past 12 years, I’ve served as the corresponding secretary.
About 15 years ago, I “won the lotto” as I like to call it. I was sworn in as a firefighter in MY hometown, and have been happy and proud to come to work every day and serve my community. My choice for public service was an easy one; mio fratello became a police officer for Berwyn years prior and, like a kid impersonating his hero, I wanted to be just like my big brother.
After saving some sorde, I chose to buy my home in Berwyn, a beautiful 85-year-old Chicago-style bungalow with stained glass windows. My choice of community was an easy one because Berwyn was a place of great memories and opportunities for me, and I wanted to keep my roots here with the hopes of my family having similar experiences.
Remaining true to my working-class upbringing, it was an easy fit for me to volunteer and get involved with the International Association of Fire Fighters. I’ve served as an executive board member of our Berwyn Local for the past 10 years, working to maintain adequate conditions for our membership. The Fire Department has become another extension of family to me, a fraternity where we work, eat, laugh, cry and together do good things for our community.
In 2009, I wanted to be more involved in my community, so I decided to run for Berwyn Park District commissioner. Since being elected, I have the pleasure of enriching the quality of life in Berwyn by providing superior parks, facilities and recreational services in a fiscally responsible manner. Through the Park District, we can help build strong families and a more connected community while protecting and preserving the environment. My hopes are that by providing quality recreational services, families will want to rediscover Berwyn and become involved in their community at the same time businesses will do the same.
So I’ve taken you through my personal journey in Berwyn, and in the coming months, I’ll be sharing more stories about the Italian side of my beloved suburb. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions to ask or stories to share. Next month, I’ll offer a brief history of Berwyn and the Italian Americans who have made it such a wonderful place to live.