The Real Ellis Island Experience

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I had a great experience Tuesday at Ellis Island.

Hundreds of people gathered on a historic day, April 17th, to celebrate the lives of some of the immigrants to America who came through Ellis Island. We remembered several individuals whose hands helped build America, and whose descendants have contributed so much to this country.

April 17, 1907 was the busiest day in the history of Ellis Island, with 11,747 immigrants coming through on a single day.

On this day each year, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation remembers all American immigrants by honoring a few famous Americans whose ancestors came through Ellis Island. This year they presented Family Heritage Awards to William D. Novelli, CEO of AARP and founder of Porter Novelli, John Mack, CEO of Morgan Stanley, Mike Krzyzewski, head coach of Duke’s mens basketball team, and Josie Natori, a first generation American from the Philippines (naturalized in 1976), who was given a special “Peopling of America Award.”

Bill Novelli’s grandfather came from Italy in 1897 and worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania. John Mack grandfather came in 1903 from what is today Lebanon; he sold household goods door to door to make a living in Marion, North Carolina. Coach Mike Kryzyzewski’s grandfather came from Poland in 1906. He too worked in the coal mines of Pennsylvania.

Coach K. couldn’t attend the ceremonies due to weather. But the other recipients were clearly flooded with emotions as they watched the video presentations about their ancestors and reminisced about the sacrifices their parents and grandparents made to make their life and success possible.

It was so moving.

A common thread tied the honorees and all of us in the audience together. We all have ancestors who courageously came here from other lands, leaving the familiar behind, to encounter a new life in a strange new country. Most of the honorees shed tears and expressed a deep love for this country as well as for their ancestors who made it possible for them to live the American Dream.

This was such an outstanding event. I hope I can come in future years to this ceremony. I’ll never forget it.

It was at the same time extremely personal – each honoree has a totally unique family experience — and also universal, as I believe each of us in the audience felt similar feelings as well recalling our own immigrant ancestors, and their sacrifices. I enjoyed being back at Ellis Island and to spend a few hours in the museum, learning more about the immigrant experience. If you haven’t been to Ellis Island before, plan a trip around it. Spend a few hours here, walk through the museum, watch the wonderful movie that shows what it was like here. And let your heart turn back to your own ancestors and what they have done for you. It is a very satisfying experience.

The Secretary of Interior Dick Kempthorne (former governor of Idaho) as well as leaders in the National Park Service were also there. He is hoping for $3 billion in funds for the “Centennial Challenge” to improve the national parks for the 100th anniversary of their creation in 2016. He clearly is impressed that The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation has raised $550 million in private donations (no government dollars used) since its inception for restoring the statue and building the museum, among other worthy purposes. Secretary Kempthorne called this relationship between SOLEIF and NPS the most successful public-private partnership in US History.

Donations are still accepted for future Ellis Island projects, so visit EllisIsland.org to plan your trip there and make a donation while you are at it. (Or do research in the 25 million records that are online at ellisisland.org as a result of a partnership between Ellis Island the LDS Church. And buy a passenger record, or a ship manifest of your own ancestor’s journey here, and provide funds that way to help the Foundation.)

Tommy Lasorda, a Foundation board member, and honoree last year provided the laughter for the day.

He had us all rolling when he explained why so many Italians are named Tony, and why every person in the US has an Italian friend named “Tony.” Because so many Italians had their foreheads stamped “TO NY” when they came here on the ships. He also said if it hadn’t been for his parents who immigrated here, he’d probably be addressing us as “Pope Thomas the XXVth.”

His father immigrated here, with the attitude that “maybe I’ll have to take tough jobs but my children will be able to be anything they want to be.” He said he shed tears last year while seeing the photos of his own parents on the big screen.

It was nice to see an LA Dodger welcomed so warmly in NY Yankee territory. (I guess the Dodgers used to be in Brooklyn, and Lasorda pitched for them early in his career.) It was nice to see that the ties that bind us in this country are so much deeper than the differences that separate us. It was nice to see how deep the feelings for our respective heritages run, whether Italian, Polish, Lebanese, or Philippino, and how much those feelings have in common, including gratitude for the family members who made the American experience possible.

I was especially moved by Bill Novelli’s speech. He is one of the world’s great idea marketers. He said that all 4 of his grandparents had emigrated from Italy. They had raised 14 children, but only 1 of them, his Uncle Nick, had made it to college. But they made it possible for their children to go.

He said it is so important that we teaching our children the immigrant values of hard work, strong families, sacrificing for each other and respecting our heritage. As the head of the AARP I think he can do something to make sure grandparents are able to share these values with their grandchildren.

The music for the event was performed by Josh Tanner, whose magnificent voice is heard on Broadway each night. He plays the adult Simba in the Lion King. He sang a song about the hands that made America. And then he closed with God Bless America.

Nearly 30 million people have visited Ellis Island since the museum was opened in 1990. Mayor Bloomberg issued a proclamation that Tuesday was “Ellis Island Family History Day.”

Ellis Island is one of the most memorable historic sites I’ve ever visited and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to have a moving experience thinking about the hardships that tens of millions of immigrants went through to make a good life possible for their families in America.

If we don’t remember what they did for us, and as Bill Novelli said, teach those values to our children, we risk losing what made this country great in the first place.

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1 Response

  1. Lucille Clark

    Is Coach K related in any way to a former professor of the Russian language at Duke by the same last name? I do not remember his first name, but he came to Duke from Poland by way of South or Central America. The time would have been in the 50’s and 60’s, maybe earlier as well. Please reply. Thank you.

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