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Italian American Club to mark 50 years with new Sister City

Italian American Club recording secretary, left, Judy VanDyke, poses with, Ron Anselmo, club president, and Spokane Superior Court Judge Sam Cozza, club orator. (Judith Spitzer Special to The Spokesman-Review)
Italian American Club recording secretary, left, Judy VanDyke, poses with, Ron Anselmo, club president, and Spokane Superior Court Judge Sam Cozza, club orator. (Judith Spitzer Special to The Spokesman-Review)

Ever heard the names Deena Caruso, Joe Albi, Father Joseph Cataldo, Pat Cozza, Victor Felice, Peter Jacoby, Victor Forni and Mike Lamanna?

They are among a long list of Italian Americans who have lived in and loved the Spokane area.

The names may ring a bell because they all helped create the city of Spokane we know today. And all were members of the Italian American Club over the past 50 years.

On Saturday, the American Italian Club of Spokane will celebrate its 50th anniversary, as well as designate a new International Sister City with Cagli, Italy, a town with longtime ties to Spokane.

The upcoming celebration will include dignitaries from Spokane as well as visitors from Cagli, a small town in the Italian Province of Le Marche in north central Italy, said Ron Anselmo, president of the Spokane club. The local club is affiliated with the national Order of Sons of Italy in America.

Anselmo, Spokane Superior Court Judge Sam Cozza, who is the club’s orator, and Judy VanDyke, club recording secretary, sat down recently to talk about the history and heritage of Italian Americans in the Pacific Northwest.

“In order to technically be a full member you have to be Italian, or part Italian, or be married to an Italian … and we also have social members,” Anselmo said. “The thing I really love about the club is that it’s a working club. It’s committed to doing standing fundraisers throughout the year, and those funds are donated to the community.”

Cozza, whose father Pat Cozza was one of the club’s founding members, said being of Italian descent and living in this part of the country is a bit different from living in New York, Philadelphia or Boston.

“In a way it takes a little bit more work to seek out other Italian Americans here and pursue that interest. It’s easier to take it for granted when you know you’ve got Little Italy right at your doorstep,” Cozza said.

Club members meet once a month for official club business, and enjoy an Italian dinner following the meeting. There are several events throughout the year including a spaghetti dinner, a summer picnic at Mission Park, an Italiano Festival at Liberty Lake, and participation in the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Spokane.

Aside from charity work, Cozza said the club celebrates the history and culture of Italians in America, with both the older and the younger generation.

Cozza said when the club was formed in the late 1960s, two-thirds of the membership were people like his dad – immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants.

“So, for them it was more personal; having a little of a tie to friends who had a common bond to the old country. Naturally as time has gone on, you get to the second and third generations and it’s a little different focus because those people haven’t necessarily had the same experience growing up. So it’s more of a learning experience for them than it was for the first generation,” he said.

Many Italian Americans made their way to Spokane to work for the railroads in the 1920s and 1930s, Cozza said.

“My father came here in 1947 at age 19, when his father was already here working for the railroad. My dad got a job as a salesman and he didn’t know a lick of English. He took night school classes at Lewis and Clark High School with other immigrants who were learning English,” he said.

Cozza, whose family comes from the Calabria area “in the toe of the boot,” said his family always tried to maintain the traditions of the old country. “I have very vivid memories from childhood,” he said. “Mom and Dad would make things like sausage and can their own tomatoes. And every fall a bunch of us would get together and go to Northern Idaho to pick mushrooms.”

The tradition of wine making was an autumn tradition as well.

“Every year about this time of year my dad made wine with several of his buddies. They would bring up grapes from one of the produce companies. They had their own barrels and they had it down to a science,” he added. “They had a blast doing that and a lot of Italians did that. They did a lot of those traditional things that harkened back to their experience growing up in Italy.”

Cagli, a new Sister City

Cagli, Spokane’s newest sibling city, is like a much smaller version of Spokane according to John Caputo, a professor of communication and leadership at Gonzaga University, who has taken a group of students to visit Cagli every summer since 2002. Caputo said the area is known for hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation, much like Spokane.

Caputo said Cagli, is a “charming small city that is historically relevant,” and is the perfect Italian community where he embeds his students for an experience that is not a trip made up of “museum culture.”

“Since 2002, I’ve been taking kids there to understand Italian culture and people,” Caputo said. “We are working with multimedia storytelling and we’ve told about 350 stories of people in that community.”

The result of the visits are small documentaries, as well as a hard copy book, that are provided to the Cagli community.

“We have a website where we post the video, and we give Cagli a copy of the book. We’ve won awards for the program itself, so we’re not unknown,” he added. “People create these wonderful relationships, and people there look forward to the visit.”

Caputo said when he came up with the Sister City idea he had no idea what was involved. “I teach a graduate program with students who did a master’s thesis on how to build sister cities,” he said.

Cagli’s mayor, Alberto Alessandri, and Marco Valeri, the mayor’s assistant, will be in Spokane for the signing of the proclamation of the new Sister City in October along with Mayor David Condon and other city officials.

Meatballs by the thousands

The local club’s biggest fundraiser is a spaghetti dinner held every year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

Last year the Italian club hosted about 1,400 spaghetti lovers who ate about 4,800 meatballs.

“Last year I ordered 9,600 meatballs because I thought it was going to be a banner year,” Anselmo said. “But it was in the aftermath of the windstorm so we only used about 4,800. We donated the rest to Christ Kitchen.”

Club members start the process of making the dinner a week before the event.

“Everything is homemade,” he said. “We order out meats and then we put together all the ingredients that go in our meatballs. We make all of our sauces and even the homemade salad dressing for the salads.”

Then “early, early, early on the Saturday before the dinner,” club members start cooking.

Funds raised at the annual dinner go to a scholarship program for club members. Other recipients of funds raised by the club include the local Alzheimer’s Association.

The club sponsors other events as well, including an annual picnic on the first Sunday in August, and the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade where members walk alongside an infamous replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is pulled on a trailer through the parade route.

“We got into it many years ago,” Cozza said. “They once had a panel truck with all the members’ names on the side. We get our candy donated and then we walk along and pass it out to the kids and we pull the tower along.”

For those who want to learn Italian, there are lessons taught prior to every meeting, Cozza added.

Stephano Dano joined the club soon after he, his wife and their two teenagers came to Spokane from Milan, Italy, two years ago.

“My wife found the Italian American Club because she loves being in touch with people, and being active. I like to be around people, too, and I like to do whatever I can do for people,” Dano said.

“I love to be around people and to teach them the Italian language and the Italian way of life,” he added.

The American Italian Club is actively doing outreach to attract new members to the club, Cozza said.

“We’re trying to get smarter about social media and we have our own Facebook page,” he added.

The factbox with this story was updated to correct the club’s monthly meeting time and place.