Washington, DC, May 27, 2010 – The Sons of Italy Foundation (SIF) presented President Bill Clinton with a lifetime achievement award for his career in public service during its 22nd annual National Education & Leadership Awards (NELA) Gala in Washington, D.C. on May 26. Mr. Clinton received his award from Quincy Jones, who called the former president his “brother from another mother.” During his acceptance speech, Mr. Clinton said that one of the goals of the William J. Clinton Foundation he has established is “changing the definition of good citizenship.”
“I believe there is an enormous need, to help the helpers take the world in the right direction,” he said. Noting that many in the audience are descendents of Italian immigrants, he said “the values embodied by the Sons of Italy will take the country a long way…we are a better country because we have immigrants. I think we ought to raise the ceiling on immigration.”
Among the 900 guests were prominent leaders from government, business, academia, sports and entertainment, including: Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House; David Thorne, U.S. ambassador to Italy; Giulio Terzi, Italy’s ambassador the U.S.; Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq; Drs. Anthony Fauci and Robert Gallo, the noted AIDS researchers; and a number of U.S. congressmen.
Referring to his meeting with President Obama on May 25, Mr. Napolitano said he realized “how deeply Italy’s commitment to fighting terrorism is appreciated (by the White House.).” He said that 8,000 Italian troops are now in Kosovo, Lebanon and Afghanistan, where two Italian military were killed last week.
Also honored that evening were Capt. Anthony Odierno, (U.S. Army, Ret.), who was severely wounded in Iraq; and Lewis Merletti, former director of the U.S. Secret Service. In presenting his son with a SIF award for courage and patriotism, Gen. Odierno spoke of Sgt. John Basilone, the only enlisted man to earn both the Navy Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor during World War II. He called the late Marine “a shining example of what Italian Americans have given this country.” In accepting his award, Capt. Odierno said “courage and patriotism sometimes go unrecognized. They are the actions of ordinary people in extraordinary situations.” Capt. Odierno lost an arm serving in Iraq. Today, he is with the New York Yankees and also serves on the board of the Wounded Warriors Project, which seeks to raise the public’s awareness and seek aid for severely wounded members of the U.S. armed forces.
Lewis Merletti received the SIF’s most coveted honor, its National Education & Leadership Award, which gives the gala its name. Past NELA honorees include poet Dana Gioia, scientists Anthony Fauci and Robert Gallo, football legend Joe Paterno, entertainer Annette Funicello and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Mr. Merletti is a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Secret Service and eventually became its 19th director. A Vietnam veteran, he now is with the Cleveland Browns.
“Whenever I had a difficult decision to make,” he said, “I would remember an inscription I saw at the Naval Academy in Annapolis: ‘Not for self but for country.’ That is how I’ve tried to live my life because I think each of us has a duty of be committed to this country.”
Also recognized that evening were 11 young Italian Americans who received the SIF’s national scholarships and will now attend many of America’s top universities. The Master of Ceremonies for the evening was actor Joe Mantegna. Tenor Michael Amante offered moving and inspiring renditions of “Bring Him Home” and “God Bless America.”
The SIF is the philanthropic arm of the Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA), the largest and oldest national organization for men and women of Italian heritage in the United States. Since its founding in 1959, the SIF has donated more than $110 million to education, medical research, cultural preservation, disaster relief and other special projects, including $50 million in scholarships.