One of my favorite memoir clients was John De Luca, former vice mayor of San Francisco and President of the California Wine Institute for 28 years.
A man of considerable warmth and bonhomie, John De Luca’s character seemed to flourish despite or because of family tragedies precipitated by war and poverty. His first memory was of two grown men staring down at him in his crib. At three years old he was sleeping next to a trap which his father and godfather had devised to catch a rat.
This rodent that had been nibbling at his fingers and toes, leaving tooth marks as baby John slept. The jerrybuilt contraption successfully immobilized the rat and the men disposed of it.
Thinking back on this event, De Luca reasons: “Two resourceful men with few material assets accomplished what they had to do to save my life. From my very first memories I was impressed that there were people and forces looking out for me. I have felt that deep sense of protection from my earliest days.”
On his eighth birthday, family and friends gathered round for the celebration which was interrupted by a radio broadcast: Japanese forces had bombed Pearl Harbor. De Luca’s family members were living both in the United States in Sicily (while Italy was a member of the Axis)– especially John’s elder brother whom his mother had to leave in Sicily when she immigrated.
The De Luca’s were beset with conflict within the conflict. His father was sequestered at Ellis Island as an enemy alien during World War II. He remembers his parents did their best to keep their spirits up for their son. They put on the “bella figura” – a good face — to protect John from the gravity of the situation.
The family’s emphasis on John’s security and sense of safety bore fruit.
His Rhodes scholarship supported his study of Italy’s Communist Party. Against the prevailing wisdom at the time, he predicted correctly that communism in Europe would not kowtow to Moscow but would take on national characteristics wherever the movement grew.
John was among the first class of the White House Fellows program created by Pres. Lyndon Johnson and he had a hand in researching the background behind the president’s Vietnam policy.
He served eight years as deputy Mayor to Joseph Alioto in San Francisco helping the mayor cope with the pressures of the riotous 1960sand then went on to become president of California’s Wine Institute. For 28 years, as the wine industry struggled with questions about marketing and legislation, De Luca broadened the Institute’s vision to emphasize the healthful benefits of wine and its physical properties.