"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Italian Americans at Yale

I was one of a few students chosen for admission to Yale under a special, experimental program that in many ways preceded the revolutionary reform of Kingman Brewster and Inslee Clark. It was called (I found out only years after graduation after Larry Migliaccio, an attorney, also Yale ' 64 and fellow beneficiary of the program managed to force an academic Freedom of Information Act in 1979) Italo-Search.

Yale in the late Fifties had begun to come under increasing pressures from New Haven to invest more in the city - not only in infrastructure, but in human resources as well. It wasn't enough, City officials said, for Yale to hire the men and women who served the elite; it was important for them to recruit talented New Haven students for Yale's undergraduate body itself. The time had come for New Haven's Italian-Americans to stop serving strawberries, and to eat them.

Yale agreed, but with a prejudice characteristic of the times, assumed that any Italian-American New Haven student would be only suitable for menial work, agreed to admit Richard Puzzi,, Alderman Guido Marucci's highly recommended candidate who had been a football standout at New Haven High. At least this slab of hairy meat would make short work of the Princeton line, so fuck the grades. A memo went out to all Puzzi’s professors at the beginning of the year: "Pass this ape".

To Yale's surprise, Puzzi turned out to be a below average football player - he ended the year only as a fourth down lineman on the freshman team. To their greater surprise, he turned out to be quite a good student, with a particular aptitude for math - not a remarkable aptitude by any means, but far greater than they had ever imagined. By the end of the year, Puzzi not only had passed every course, but had garnered a B+ average. The New Haven aldermen were obviously pleased - and vindicated - and pressured Yale to expand their enrollment of New Haven Italians. Yale refused, insisting that Puzzi was a fluke. Unfortunately for Yale, with the arrogance and disdain that characterized Yale Town-Gown relationships up until the mid-Sixties, its politically naive spokesmen were more than candid and public in their pronouncements. "Mr. Puzzi", an Assistant Dean told the Journal-Courier, "may be a champion of his people, but he is certainly not a champion of our people".

The aldermen were pissed. Angry letters poured in to the Journal-Courier demanding a retraction, a public apology, and reparations - twenty Italian-Americans from New Haven must be admitted to Yale to the Class of 1964 or else (the threat of a university-wide strike of kitchen and maintenance workers was implicit). Worse yet, Italian-American delegates to the Connecticut Legislature got into the act. Picking up the political cudgel and wielding it at the state level, Assemblymen DeVito, Garofano, and Binelli excoriated Yale at every turn. If this was not bad enough, it was an election year, and Yale bashing was a sure-fire vote-getter. Soon any Connecticut WASP was fair game. Cartoons of St. Grottlesex airheads summering on the Vineyard, prattling about our people - all portrayed as vapid Gatsby-esque dilettantes - appeared in every paper from the Hartford Courant to the Naugatuck News.

Yale knew they had to settle, but were convinced they could do it on their terms. Negotiations began with a certain civility - as uppity as the Italian-Americans were getting, there was still a visceral respect for the well-born - but they quickly broke down. Observers reported a class war - invectives with language that veered perilously close to the ethnic slur came from both sides. The talks broke off, and only because both politicians and university administrators knew that the Yale-New Haven marriage could never survive a nasty divorce, a new date was set for talks to resume.

Two months later, to avoid further roasting in the press and increasing political pressure from Connecticut and now national politicians, Yale made a generous proposal to New Haven: it would take a minimum of two New Haven residents per year, would make a public apology for the "our people" interview, and would recruit up to five Italian Americans from Connecticut per year if and only if they were the most exceptional candidates. The standards Yale set were so high that the Admissions Office was convinced that they would get no suitable candidates. The Connecticut politicians, a bit uneasy about the almost unattainable qualifications, felt at the same time that they could not back down on them - of course the descendants of Gallileo, Michaelangelo, and Bernini could meet the highest standards.

And so Italo-Search began; and on an early acceptance program, I was admitted to Yale. After Migliaccio obtained all the Italo-Search files in the late Seventies, he sent relevant records to each of us of the Class of 1964. Mine read: "Parlato is an exceptional student. In a personal interview (February 18, 1960) he showed a remarkable range of intellectual interests, a depth of perception, and an understanding of complex issues that demonstrated a maturity far beyond his years and far beyond the expectations of Loomis, this manifestly second-rate school on the backwaters of the Farmington River. His essays were remarkable for their insight and grasp of subtle and complex issues. His teacher comments were celebratory: ' The best student Loomis has ever had.....An exceptional mind........Brilliant..........Destined for success '. This is the Italian-American we are looking for".

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