April 29, 2013

Joe Manchin inducted into Order of La Sila | Times West Virginian

CLARKSBURG — Whether he’s waiting with the mothers of miners at the Sago mine to find out the fate of their loved ones or comforting parents of 6-year-olds killed by a gunman’s fire, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin knows his response and his actions have been formed by those who came before him and raised him.

“When I saw the mine tragedy at Sago, I will never forget that,” Manchin said Sunday evening at Village Square Conference Center in Clarksburg as he was inducted into the Order of La Sila, honoring his Italian roots.

“There is nobody that gives you a book when you become governor and says, ‘This is how you are supposed to operate.’ You’ve got to figure it out.

“And it’s really who you are. And I’ve always said this. We’re all a product of our environment. You are who you are by where you come from and who raised you.”

Sunday night’s event gave Manchin and his extended family the opportunity to reflect upon their lives and their ancestors as the senator was the second person to be honored in the Order of La Sila, or tall pine, referring to the similarities in the foliage that both the area of Calabria and West Virginia share.

The honor was bestowed by a collaborative effort between Fairmont State University in partnership with the Frank & Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center and the Calabria-West Virginia Italian Heritage Association, which encourages student exchanges between Fairmont State and the University of Calabria in Cosenza, Italy. In addition to honoring the Manchins, the evening served as a fundraiser for scholarships to send students to Italy.

Manchin took the podium and received his award after his brother, cousins and son all spoke about the importance of family, often referring back to the senator’s grandparents, “Papa Joe” and “Mama Kay” Manchin, both of whom immigrated to Marion County in the early part of the 20th century from San Giovanni in Fiore, a town in the region of Calabria.

“This is about Fairmont State University,” Manchin said. “By honoring us tonight, you allow us to honor Fairmont State University. This will help the cause of why we are here. The cause is basically to help continue the wonderful relationship that we have with all of our friends from San Giovanni in Fiore, Italy.”

Manchin wove stories of his family with some of the more pertinent issues of the day, noting that there were no immigration laws until 1924.

“That’s how we built America,” he said. “And now we will figure out how we will continue to build America by giving that same opportunity to so many people around the world.”

He also referred to some tough times the state faced during the Sago disaster and the nation dealt with in the aftermath of the Connecticut school shootings.

During the Sago mine disaster in Upshur County in January 2006 during Manchin’s first term as governor, 13 miners were trapped and only one emerged alive.

Last December, a gunman shot and killed 20 elementary school children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., an incident that has renewed the debate about background checks for guns in the United States.

Manchin worked with U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to write legislation that would require additional background checks for gun purchases. The bill was defeated April 17.

When reacting to those tragedies, Manchin drew strength by wondering what his parents and grandparents would do.

“I give this speech a lot,” he said. “I was born and raised as a privileged child. A lot of people think of a privileged child as someone who maybe has a lot of money in the family. Well, that wasn’t the case. Maybe a big home. Well, we had a three-room garage apartment. Maybe it was a fancy neighborhood. Well, we lived between the tracks and Buffalo Creek.

“People say, ‘Why do you think you were a privileged child?’ And I say, ‘I had unconditional love. I never had to worry about who loved me. Everybody loved me in my family and I loved them the same.’” Family was the theme of the evening. Not only did the audience hear from his brother, Dr. John Manchin; his first cousins, Marion County Circuit Judge Michael Aloi, George Levitsky and Delegate Tim Manchin, DMarion; and his son, Joe Manchin IV, but they also could see his children and his eight grandchildren — including the newest addition, newborn Vivian Gayle Roberts — sitting nearby.

At one point, Manchin asked his brothers and sisters and then his first cousins to stand up.

“There were 20 of us that grew up like brothers and sisters,” he said. “We didn’t know we weren’t brothers and sisters.”

The Order of La Sila was created last year and Frank Oliverio was honored as the first inductee, said Dr. Judy Byers, director of the Frank & Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center in Fairmont.

“Tonight is the continuation because it’s our dream to honor families,” Byers said. “These roots have come from Calabria, especially San Giovanni in Fiore. They are the epitome of the immigrant’s story.”

Francois Nicolletti, founder and CEO of the Heritage Calabria International Foundation, presented Manchin with a plaque and a sash. Prior to that, he drew a wild round of applause when he revealed his wish for the senator’s future.

“I have a dream ... that from among you, a tall pine, a gigante, Joe Manchin III, whose roots stretch from Sila, will become the next president of the United States.”

The Rev. Chapin Engler, in remarks he made prior to the invocation, also commented on Manchin’s national presence when he referred to a recent sketch on the NBC comedy show “Saturday Night Live” that had an actor portraying the senator prior to the vote on the Manchin-Toomey bill.

“Joe, you’ve really made the big time,” he said.

Other speakers included Mark Anthony Manchin, son of former Secretary of State A. James Manchin — the senator’s uncle — who recalled how his father introduced legislation in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1948 that suggested the integration of schools six years before the Supreme Court case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., would mandate it for the entire nation. A. James Manchin then was defeated when he ran for the House of Delegates again in 1950.

George Levitsky, general manager of the Marion County Transit Authority and another first cousin of the senator, drew laughs as he recounted his mother, Rose, the senator’s aunt.

“Rose outlived both her husbands, her parents and her four siblings,” he said. “She was hit by a speeding car, thrown into the air and survived with only minor injuries. She survived stomach cancer and with heart disease and kidney failure she lived five years longer than the doctors expected. Dialysis was a social event for her. She chose her outfit and color coordinated her lap blanket for each treatment three days a week.”

The nurses admired her joy of living and positive attitude and still approach him to ask about “Rose’s son,” Levitsky said.

For Sen. Joe Manchin, it all points to how family means everything.

“I think about West Virginia every moment of every day,” he said. “And every time, whether I’m on television or whether I’m speaking on the floor of the Senate, I keep thinking about the common sense of how we operate every day. How we are expected to give something back.

“And there are so many things we were blessed to have that I’m able to use so many talents, and I think it gives a person a different perspective of who I am, and they see a little bit more of me when they know more about my family.”

By:  Mary Wade Burnside