Dec 202009

November 29 2009, Manhattan

In line to board the ferry to Ellis Island, I reflect on how frightened my grandparents must have been when they made the crossing to this country 100 years ago. My paternal grandparents also had my father,

Francesco, six months old, in arms.

Who knows what conditions they must have endured on board, herded into steerage and then herded again onshore.

My mother’s mother Gemma made the crossing with her sisters. How did they keep together?

The depiction of steerage at the Ellis Island Museum shows hordes of people crowded and unseparated in the same large compartment. The etching of people in steerage showed families clustered together as standing about and falling with no room to sit.

When they got off Ellis Island, and I don’t know how long they were detained there, who met them on shore? How did they find their way to the railroad station?

On the Ellis Island tour I learned that the great majority of immigrants came between 1898 and 1924. The documentation said the center was closed in 1954 but does not explain what happened between 1924 and 1954. One percent of them were returned for sickness or lack of cash. But there were those who came who lacked the requisite $25. How could they pay for their passage on the return trip?

The detention center as it stands is surely incomplete or perhaps not even the authentic place. According to John DeLuca it must have contained far more people than we could tell on my visit. The documentation said it had several rooms of bunk beds.

Most compelling was the size of the Registry room. Photography of people waiting in benches were all organized and hived off into different sections.

Also remarkable were the photos of women going through the medical exam and the faces of people waiting in lines. Terrified faces.

To get to the ferry to Ellis Island I had to go through airport TSA security. However they let me keep my shoes on and their equipment did not detect my hip replacement. So how secure was it?

Emigrants had to pass through many tests to be allowed entry – medical, legal, literacy and sanity. At one station immigrants were standing in lines several abreast at huge long counter. People who were extremely anxious and confused were sometimes taken for insane and summarily detained.

Officials validated their identifications by checking their names, places of origin and destinations against the ship manifests.

At one end of the main auditorium was the entrance to a stairwell, dubbed the “stairs of separation” that led to three doors. Immigrants destined for the middle door were being detained. Those bearing right were heading for a real road connection to take them out of state.

Newcomers who entered the door on the left were staying in New York. At the bottom of the stairs, the new New Yorkers reached the so-called Door of Kisses, alluding to the practice that local relatives would be there to greet them.

A very desirable welcome but how many experienced such a happy event?

Dec 142009

Alameda Times-Star (CA)-December 14, 2009
Author: Joan Aragone, San Mateo County Times

As a child, I recall my mother talking about her high school years, showing me scrapbooks and telling me stories.

After much questioning, my reticent father opened up on the subject of his childhood, when he played on the open slopes of hillsides that are now covered with homes. It sounded like another world.

But when our parents and grandparents were young, most of them weren’t taking notes. As they got older, as in all families, life took over. Nobody had time to wonder about the past.

Eventually, the grandparents and their friends, with stories of life in the “old country,” were gone, then the parents. And now, when questions arise about those distant times, there’s nobody to ask.

Experience may have given us insights into challenges our parents and grandparents faced. What happened? Why were they like they were?

But, fortunately, for the benefit of memory keepers, things have changed. With personal computers and a more educated population, increasing numbers of aging Americans, who recognize the importance of writing down their stories, are creating personal records.

Some, who cover specific periods, may work alone or with family members. But others, especially those who write about entire lives, work with memoirists, professional writers who help organize and present often complex information in narrative form.

That’s the process for John De Luca, 76, of Redwood City ˜ executive vice president of the California Wine Institute, chairman of the board of directors of the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at UCSF, and adviser to the president of the University of California on agriculture and business initiatives, among other positions ˜ who is working with San Francisco journalist Francine Brevetti, creator of Legend Crafter, on a narrative of his fascinating life.

Brevetti says her business “kind of grew.” While a business writer at the Oakland Tribune, Brevetti profiled a man who had mentioned he wanted his life story written. After leaving the paper, she worked with De Luca, and he referred her to another client.

“This kind of work enriched my soul,” she said.

Brevetti’s method is collaborative. Using a recorder, she asks questions, then using transcriptions, shapes the story into narrative. The storyteller then reads and revises the manuscript. Other sources may be interviewed as the family or subject requires. Projects can be long or short, some meant for publication, others for personal use within a family.

De Luca’s is a complex story. The son of Italian immigrants, he grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan before moving to California. Then came a doctorate in Soviet Studies, service in the White House during the Vietnam era and, in a career switch that reflects his varied life, appointment as deputy mayor of San Francisco under Mayor Joe Alioto during the period of the Zodiac killer and other tumultuous events.

De Luca was a witness to history in many settings ˜ all before serving as president of the Wine Institute for 28 years, during which time he participated in interviews for UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library Oral History Project on the California wine industry.

“The consensus was that I should put all this down,” he said. “I’m being responsive to family and friends.”

But with a busy schedule, he needed a collaborator.

“I’m 76, but I feel 26,” he said in a telephone interview.

“I’ll probably never ‘retire.’ I’m as busy now as I have ever been,” he said. “Francine provides the discipline that is difficult in my life as it continues.”

“Nobody understands how hard it is to write your own story,” Brevetti said. “It’s challenging, partly because of the memories. Some don’t want to return to bad memories. Some may not have memories. When they work with a professional, they just talk, or they can be guided through the memory. Not everybody wants to be published, they just want to record things for their families.”

For De Luca, the project is proving rewarding.

“There is a beautiful flood of recall that would have never been,” he said. “It’s an enrichment for me and my family.”

For information on Legend Crafter, go to or

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