IN THE PEWS: Celebrating a proud heritage

Maria and Fred Valentini at Rome's Spanish steps.
Maria and Fred Valentini at Rome’s Spanish steps.

A.J. “Fred” Valentini’s life has been deeply immersed in his Italian heritage, much like that of our parish. He grew up in an Italian family, married into another, studied in Italy and taught the language for years. He came to Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament from another parish and has found home right here.

You were an Italian teacher for many years in the Utica City School District. How did you decide to teach a foreign language?

As I was entering university, I had the opportunity to study the language I had heard since infancy from my grandparents. None of my cousins could put a sentence together. I wanted to be able to communicate with my grandparents in their first language. Studying it also gave me a link to centuries of heritage. I enjoyed teaching because it gave me an opportunity to stay in touch with what I enjoy and exercise those modest talents that I possess.

Describe what those years were like for you?

I loved teaching (and still do). Kids have a way of grounding you. They haven’t developed sophisticated filters on their speech. They tell it like they see it. They also have boundless optimism that gives you hope for a better future. I always tried to go beyond just the classroom experience with my students. I offered them chances to travel abroad, took busloads to New York and other places where they could get a glimpse of the world beyond the confines of the beautiful Mohawk Valley. I also helped plan social events for kids to meet and interact outside of the academic environment.

How did teaching change for you from the time you began until you retired?

When I began, the school was more neighborhood oriented. Technology was limited to a slide or 16-mm film projector. I had time to be creative and invent things to make lessons interesting for the students. As time went by, more and more paperwork and documentation was demanded to justify outcomes. The school population changed and more and more students of other ethnicities were taking my class, which required me to find commonalities in the culture I was teaching. I began teaching more English as well through the study of a foreign language. The school was more under the microscope, yet frequently I saw it taking on a the job of parents who were unavailable, missing or just uninterested. At the beginning of my career, Parents Night would draw dozens of concerned, involved parents; later in my career I would only see a handful. As the years went on I saw more instances of parents going after hard-working teachers for the failures of their children, yet I saw the district offering a myriad of programs and services to help improve performance. I don’t place blame. The world has changed, too, and it takes a lot to negotiate pathways through the complicated society that has evolved.

It seems as though learning languages such as Italian, French and Latin have diminished over the years with more of a focus now on Spanish and Mandarin. What are your thoughts about that?

In general, Americans are perceived as lazy when it comes to learning other languages. The Italian community in this area has largely assimilated into mainstream America. Those continuing to study the language are trying to maintain those same connections that I was so many years ago. Italian remains important in the field of the arts, fashion, design and cuisine, but the current emphasis in education is on technology. English is the de facto language of technology. Even French, which was once considered the language of diplomacy when I was growing up, has given up its position to English on the global stage. Latin, the mother of so many languages, is perceived as a “dead language,” yet were one to study it, one would understand so much more about the subtleties of language today. Spanish remains important in the USA thanks to the huge numbers of Hispanics who continue to enter the country and cluster in ethnic pockets. Second generations of that culture are now entering in national politics. The study of Mandarin is being helped in part by the support of the Chinese government that has supplied seed money to schools through the states for nascent programs. Clearly, considering the size of the potential Chinese market for American goods and the fact that the Chinese hold much of our national debt make the language an attractive course of study.

You love your Italian heritage. How did that fascination come about?

I was fascinated with Italian culture even before I realized it was a hook for me. My dad traveled extensively for his company, training people in foreign countries to operate assembly lines that produced coated abrasives and adhesives. He traveled twice to France, and while there took time to visit his relatives in Italy. It was emotional for him because his parents, once in the States, never got back. He was an ambassador for the whole Valentini clan. I remember in elementary school, after growing out of dinosaurs, taking out library books on Italy. Seeing the beautiful monuments, the fantastic artwork and the picturesque countryside gave me pride that my blood traced back to that magnificent country. After my wife, it has become my greatest passion.

After retirement, you became involved with the former Sons of Italy, now called the Italian Heritage Center. What drew you to that organization and what did you hope to accomplish?

My first approach to the Sons of Italy was on behalf of my students. The club allowed the kids to use the bocce courts for a yearly competition between the students of the then-three city high schools. Later, my students benefited from annual scholarships given by the Sons. After retirement, I became more involved. Unfortunately, it was at a time when overall membership had fallen and volunteers to help push forward group activities were scarce. The building and equipment were in need of repairs and daily operation costs outstripped income. I was elected president, and during my time tried to recapture some of the glory of the past through social events, educational projects and cultural activities. People still stop me from time to time and say how much they enjoyed those efforts, but ultimately the building was too big for the small number of active participants to go forward. After my term, the next administration put the place up for sale.

You and your wife came to Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament from St. Mark’s. Why were you searching for another parish and what is it that drew you here?

Mount Carmel was actually the parish in which my wife had grown up. We were married there in 1977. Our first home was in North Utica, just around the corner from St. Mark’s Church. It was where our daughter took all her religious instruction and sacraments. We walked to church in those days. We became close to the pastor there, and when he was transferred and we moved to a new home our daughter was off to college, my wife and I felt we needed to find a parish that was linked to us by more than geography. We started to attend Mass at Mount Carmel again and fell back in love with the parish and its people.

Do you feel your spiritual life has deepened since you became a parishioner?

It wasn’t long after our declaration to become members of the parish that we were asked to become active in ministry. I was asked first to help with collections at Mass. Maria became a Eucharistic minister. I was later asked to be a lector. I have to say that we had never been asked to be ministers in any capacity in our previous parishes. We enjoy being a part of the rituals established thousands of years ago. Again, it’s a recall to our ancient culture.

If you were to tell a friend why he or she should attend Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament, what would you tell them?

I tell them that if you want to be a part of an extended family in a beautiful building and listen to a priest who has a sense of humor but also knows his doctrine, they need to give us a test drive. This parish is part of a tradition in Utica that is 120 years old. It was established by people who didn’t have much more than their faith to give. There was a lot of love — love of God, love of tradition, love of culture and love of community that went into the brick and mortar of this parish. It deserves to be experienced.

A.J. Valentini

Age:
65.

Family: Wife Maria, daughter Arianna, son-in law Nick.

Educational background: BA cum laude Albany University (‘72), master’s in Italian/Education Albany University (‘73), certificate in Educational Administration (’94).  Also studied at the Universita` per Stranieri of Perugia (‘71 and ‘89), as well as the Universita` per Stranieri of Siena (‘88).

Current occupation: Adjunct professor of Italian at Utica College.

Former occupation: Chairman of the Department of Languages Other than English at Proctor High School, teacher of Italian (33 years), co-author of the textbook series, “Amici, Volumes 1 and 2.”

Interests: History, music, art, international affairs, writing, gardening.

Favorite book: “Shogun.”

Favorite movie: ”Cinema Paradiso.”

Favorite TV show: “House of Cards.”

Favorite musical genre or artist: All types from classical to R&B and country (depends on the day).

Favorite quote: “Ignorance is not so much shame as being unwilling to learn.”