The Town Ambassador Award goes to Gino Cucchi for his work as a bridge builder between the Italian and Canadian communities, and for his love for his hometown.
It is a long road between San Donato Val di Comino in Italy and Toronto in Canada, 7,176 km to be precise. A post-war childhood in Italy and a life spent in Canada without ever losing touch with his roots: this is the life of Gino Cucchi. And his is a life to tell.
But how did it all begin?
We are in Val di Comino not far from the devastation suffered by the Abbey of Montecassino, where the Gustav line had made life difficult for the entire population. Gino and his family got through the war but their mother found herself a widow at 29 with 5 children to feed.
Many of the population begins to talk about America, the American dream… Gino was a little altar boy in San Donato Val di Comino when the bishop organized a meeting to invite people to go to Canada. There was only one condition to be respected: you had to be able to read and write.
The first to leave was his brother-in-law and in ’58 he too embarked from Naples towards Toronto on the Saturnia ship for 12 days of travel: he was 17 and what he knew of the world was only what he had heard in the stories of others.
In Toronto it was inevitable to reside in Little Italy and start working in a clothing store. He sold clothes and managed relationships with customers because the Jewish owner didn’t speak Italian.
He studies English but his centre of interest and his life still revolved mainly in the Italian community of Toronto.
At that time there were many men and few women, and fate has it that Gino fell in love with a woman from his town, San Donato Val di Comino, and they get married.
It was natural for them to also be active in Canada in organizing the feast of San Donato (the patron saint from whom their home town takes its name). A way to celebrate their double soul and to build the future without denying the past.
In 1973, Gino started his own personal shop “Gino Fashion” and immediately began to carry out a great advertising campaign.
He believed in communication and radio and was so good that people came from 1,500 km to get their wardrobes in his shop. They even came from New York State.
But we mustn’t think of today’s Italian Canadians.
The Italians at that time still did not feel they were part of the Canadian community, they were not fully accepted, and the miracle of sharing destinies practically took place in 1982 when Italy won the World Cup.
In the joy of victory, 350,000 people from Toronto flocked to St Clair Avenue West to celebrate the victory alongside the Italians. A peaceful party and for the first time spontaneous respect for the community that had never given problems.
Italian pride and success immediately made them visible to Canadians and put them in a different light. From being a community of workers without a name, Italians become people and the recognition of their professional value and personal qualities began.
Everyone sported an Italian flag, including trams and policemen.
Peaceful joy had invaded the city and, after two years, the main street of St. Clair Avenue West was officially renamed as Corso Italia.
The merchants’ association had collected 2,500 letters and the city had agreed to give such significant public recognition by changing the name of the main street.
Italy was always present in the hearts of Gino and of the people, who by now had Canadian children and were very grateful and tied to the new homeland. A feeling of growing love that had to manifest itself in some way so as not to forget its roots.
Life was undoubtedly Canadian, but a part of their hearts was still thousands of kilometres away and somehow the ardour should not be turned off.
Thus in 1995 Gino became the protagonist of the Special Edition radio programme dedicated to all Italian regions. Every Monday a broadcast of songs, stories and phone calls and many prestigious Italian guests.
It was a very popular program that became a point of reference for North America and not only for Toronto, which today can be defined as the largest Italian city outside Italy for the large number of Italians.
Two years later Gino and two of his friends inaugurated the monument dedicated to the Italian emigrants. Then at the University of Toronto they created a Foundation and began research to document Italian emigration and the stories that led to total integration between the two communities away from difficulty and pain.
After this success and this recognition, in 2004 it was natural that Gino became president of COMITES (Committees of Italians Abroad recognized by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs), a position he held for 11 years and then became president of the INTERCOMITES of Canada.
In this role he began to frequent Rome and the Italian parliament more assiduously. He weaved ever closer ties between the two communities and his two children are the perfect example of two bi-lingual and bi-cultural people.
His work never stops to the point that the Italian president appointed him Cavaliere della Repubblica and he received the Order of Merit from the Italian-Canadian Congress.
Today the city of Toronto has dedicated a street to him, Cav. Cucchi Gino Lane.
And we are happy to grant him the award together with Enrico Pittiglio, the mayor of San Donato Val di Comino.