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  • Christine T. Passarella

The Legacy Of Mario Cuomo: A Force For Good

I have been guided by the light of two world-renowned men in my lifetime, one I connected with through his music and spirit, the extraordinary John Coltrane. The other through his example as a man who served the people, the majestic Mario Cuomo. I did not know these men personally, but I learned about them through the lives they lived. The values they held close to their hearts matched my own in many ways. As an educator for almost two decades for the city of New York, I believed deeply in learning through the arts and the vital investment that must be made in public education.

I created the Kids for Coltrane curriculum to offer this enrichment to my students. It focused on jazz to teach children about American history, equality, character education, and the arts. By doing this I found children became invested in literacy, creativity, compassion, curiosity, and courage. John Coltrane was dedicated to being a force that encouraged people to be kind and loving. His desire to be a force for good made him a great role model for students and people all over the world. The life lived by Mario Cuomo also made him a force for good and proves character matters. The school in which I created and developed the Kids for Coltrane curriculum was nestled in the same neighborhood Mario Cuomo grew up in and raised his family. It is a joy to know these great men cared so much about humanity and with a hopeful heart I see the influence of both men in ascension today which can only be good for society.

Coltranian Values

The room was small and cozy in the student union building on Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn. Chairs were set up in rows and the Economic Society meeting was about to begin with a speaker who was making the news. I was excited to be there although you could hardly tell, as I was rather to myself, very much a confident introvert, majoring in economics at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College in the late '70s. Mario Cuomo was New York's Secretary of State who was on my radar, not only because he was now running for mayor of NYC, but because he seemed to have a sincerity that resonated with me, and I adored that he too was Italian American. They say you can't be what you can't see, and in Mario, I saw high standards to aspire to. There were not many Italian Americans in high public office which I found frustrating. I had read that Mario dealt with discrimination as an Italian American when he was looking for a job after graduating from law school. His story encouraged me never to give up even when I experienced discrimination. I knew seeing him speak in person would uplift me. His talk was warm, friendly and informative. I was mesmerized, but more than that my soul was stirred. At 19 years old, I was too shy to grab his attention for a chat, but I longed to do so. He passed by my row after he spoke, and I was just inches from his arm, and his tall presence gracefully flowed by me. I missed my opportunity to say thank you and tell him he was a beacon of light to me.

I was a Brooklyn girl who came from a family that weighed gender with not only a thumb on the scale but an iron fist at times. If I was going to make it in this world, education was my way out and up. "No inheritance for you, everything goes to your brother," my father who I loved dearly and who loved me also posed a great challenge of inequity in his view of life which included gender discrimination. The ramifications of this would have an effect on me throughout most of my life. It would not be until the years right before his passing that he would amend his decree and include his female children in the sharing of his assets. So truth be told I was indeed looking for a male role model with a wider vision, as I went into young adulthood and beyond, someone who seemed to have the heart and soul to value equality.

Son Of America Leads

Mario was born June 15, 1932, the third surviving child of Andrea and Immaculata Cuomo. His Italian Immigrant parents came here with very little materially but brought with them a work ethic and a desire to contribute to this great country. Andrea started out as a ditch digger, saved money to open a grocery store in South Jamaica, Queens, and from that saved money to buy a house in Holliswood, Queens. His American dream being realized step by step, eventually would have him see his son Mario graduate Saint John University School of Law with high honors, become a professor, and practice law with a dedication to helping people with low-income housing. In 1975, Mario was selected by Governor Hugh Carey to be New York Secretary of State. Andrea and Immaculata raised a son who would be elected Lieutenant Governor of New York, and then go on to become the much-loved Governor who served three terms. His political philosophy was progressive pragmatism. Mario saw America as a mosaic with beauty derived from the coming together of our differences.

Mario Cuomo would reach national prominence in 1984 when his lyrical control of the English language graced the Democratic National Convention with an out of the ballpark speech as he laid out his grand vision for America. It was created from his loving heart and brilliant mind, which sang the truthful song of America's creation and all the dreams yet to be fulfilled.

Cuomo wanted us to reject political labels and slogans as he saw them as too simplistic. He believed in a democracy that brought the privileged and the struggling together to help lift up one another, so all could share in the benefits and the hardships bringing opportunity for the greater good of each human life and the community. He reminded us to follow leaders who believed in policies that aligned with our own. " Ever since Franklin Roosevelt lifted himself from his wheelchair to lift this nation from its knees—wagon train after wagon train—to new frontiers of education, housing, peace; the whole family aboard, constantly reaching out to extend and enlarge that family; lifting them up into the wagon on the way; blacks and Hispanics, and people of every ethnic group, and native Americans—all those struggling to build their families and claim some small share of America. For nearly 50 years we carried them all to new levels of comfort, and security, and dignity, even affluence..."

Cuomo moved a nation deeply with that speech, resulting in Americans wanting to draft him to run for president in 1988 and 1992. Due to his commitment to the state of New York, he did not make that choice. He was a man of conviction, with deep beliefs in a woman's right to choose, strengthening and investing in the public school educational system, fighting against the death penalty, demanding change in drug laws that tragically incarcerated people for their addictions, working toward ending homelessness, prioritizing offering affordable housing, bridging the wealth gap, and prioritizing improving health care for all were all part of his platform. He was a progressive thinker who became a leader in the democratic party but was loved across party lines. Mario connected with all Americans when he shared his heartfelt words during the 1984 Democratic Convention. Cuomo's speech was partly a reaction to President Ronald Regan's limited view of "the shining city on the hill." Mario's speech blatantly and passionately expanded on the fact that there is another city where the glitter does not shine, which included the majority of Americans, some who are struggling, and many living in poverty.

The Cuomos, A Love Story

By his side that evening was his wife Matilda. She was the love of his life and companion throughout their 60-year marriage, in his private and political life. Matilda Raffa Cuomo, a daughter of Italian Immigrants met her husband while attending college. Their partnership is the foundation of the Cuomo family. Matilda encouraged and supported Mario, and worked diligently as the First Lady of New York. Before that, she was an elementary school teacher, and while being First Lady and after led her organization Mentoring USA. She founded this organization with a mission to connect mentors to young people.

Matilda and Mario were married in 1954 and a great love story would unfold through their commitment to one another. Mario and Matilda danced on their honeymoon in Puerto Rico to the gorgeous song "Stranger in Paradise" which was made famous by Tony Bennett. Cuomo dedicated his heart, soul, and mind to his marriage and family. In this union, there must be "fidelity, devotion, and a certainty about the course you've chosen." Mario Cuomo's protective arms surrounded his life partner Matilda, his wife who he called the jewel in the crown, in that crown were his 5 children and now 14 grandchildren.

The couple nurtured and encouraged their five children. Andrew became an attorney and political leader, Madeline an attorney, Maria a filmmaker, Christopher a journalist and Margaret a medical doctor. The Cuomo family is an exquisite example of the outcome from investing in your children's education with love and that investment being returned into the country. We currently see their eldest son the present Governor of New York, leading with love and confidence as he wrestles with the challenges facing the state. His adoration and love for his mother during the pandemic guided him to vigilantly protect all the elderly who may be vulnerable at this time due to the world's battle with the coronavirus. Matilda's Law lays out Andrew's plan of protection for the people most at risk in the state of New York. Andrew Cuomo's upbringing included the greatest ingredients that make a man of good character...empathy and compassion. We see in the Cuomo family the best of the American Dream, we see ourselves, and all we want for our families, mostly we feel the love Mario had for them.

The Cuomo family was moved by the music of the Great American Songbook, jazz and classical music. Tony Bennett one of the greatest American jazz singers is an admirer of Mario Cuomo. He met Mario when he was Governor outside a NYC hotel one day. Tony introduced himself to Mario who was of course well aware of his stellar stardom. The men exchanged sentiments of mutual respect and became great friends. "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" was another favorite hit song Mario enjoyed hearing Tony sing. Cuomo wrote about his friend, "He feels the world's pain and does all he can to soothe it, with music, with painting, with advocacy, and always with great love."

Mario's Role Models

A man who loved his country, Mario Cuomo's existential question resonates with this country just as much today as when he asked it repeatedly when he was alive. Mario shared in his book Why Lincoln Matters, Today More Than Ever the importance of Abraham Lincoln's example which offered a guiding force for good to him. Mario told us to deeply think about and ponder a vital question. "What do we want to be as a nation?" It is certain that Andrew Cuomo hears his father's profound question daily and uses it as the gold standard before making decisions trying to protect his constituents while also understanding his essential role in securing our civil liberties.

Mario Cuomo learned from the journey of one of America's greatest presidents. Like Lincoln, Cuomo's America offered leadership that was compassionate, generous, and more inclusive. It was vital to both leaders that we must fight to close the disparity in economic classes. Lincoln and Cuomo both believed this was an achievable dream. Mario believed that Lincoln not only led us but he created us. He wondered as his years out of public service continued where all the heroes had gone, pondering if it is possible to have leaders we can believe in like Washington, Roosevelt, and Lincoln again. "Like Socrates who put Athens on trial, Lincoln put America on trial testing our nation's commitment to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence during the Civil War," he stated.

This force for good lived in Mario Cuomo's DNA. As I am motivated by Coltrane and Cuomo, Mario had role models too. Discussing mentors in his life he stated, "Outside of my family there were few, if any, individuals who made lasting impressions on me." Over the years, however, he connected through books with three heroic figures who inspired him. ..."Thomas More, Abraham Lincoln, and of course Jesus. In the case of More, I was impressed because he combined the law and public service and religious belief so well. And in the end, he put conscience over consequence to himself. Lincoln's language fascinated me. And Jesus offered me—and many millions of others—the best rationale for living... The most valuable lesson my role models taught me is that the game is lost only when we stop trying for the greatest excellence of which we are capable..."

Mario's ability to take charge was his great strength from the time he was a young lawyer helping the local community and throughout his grand career and it led to Americans longing for him to run for president. Although he decided not to run for president, he would be a leader through his example even when he left public service. He made it clear that if God did indeed leave our world undone, it was for a purpose to allow us as humans to complete the task, and in fact, the task would never be completed if we were always moving toward what is best for the greater good. This profound statement by Mario Cuomo can guide us in these times. "At our best, especially when we are being tested, we are a national community. Today, as we struggle to rethink what form the future of federalism in America should take, we should apply a simple test: does it strengthen or weaken our national community?" He wanted us to consolidate our strength, understanding that this would increase it. He felt America should always be a land that recognizes that there is national responsibility for national problems, local responsibility for local problems, and shared responsibility for shared problems. His guiding words ring louder than ever in these challenging times.

Mario and his parents made a wish with hopeful eyes that America was for all the people. In this land, they saw wonder and miracles to share. And the beauty is that the miracle is never over, it is up to us to continue to create the masterpiece stroke by stroke, generation by generation, as we all contribute and sign our names on our country's canvas. Cuomo felt gratitude and a belief that in himself he could contribute to lifting lives, as he was lifted.

He believed he was God's servant too. To him America was family, and at our best, we value honesty, courage, responsibility, dignity with a concern for one another. His hopeful vision would be to have leaders who understood the role of leadership in the following way. "I see leaders of all political persuasions-who have the wisdom and courage to compromise when compromise is in order, and the strength to stand up when principle demands it."

The Force For Greater Good In Public School Education

I am a fervent believer in the value of teaching through the arts which builds strong character. Bringing John Coltrane's music to my students along with examining paintings by the great masters with the help of Metropolitan Museum of Art workshops, focusing on songwriting and dance, and creating mock trials as we studied case law brought the arts in education into my classroom. I believe learning through the arts is a vital component to developing critical thinking. There must not only be a fight to value and treasure public education, but arts in education must be treated with the respect it deserves.

Studying and thinking through John Coltrane's love and philosophy of life, with the questions and answers which we heard in his music, teaching through the arts also offered the children an opportunity to see great live jazz right in the classroom, and visit New York City's world-class museums with masterworks right before their eyes. My students were blessed to meet quite a few jazz musicians which enhanced character education in the curriculum. Often with the support of the Jazz Foundation of America, exemplary musicians performed in my classroom.

Infusing character education in my daily lessons was part of the Kids for Coltrane curriculum. One of the books I chose to inspire my students was written by Mario Cuomo. Two decades after first seeing Mario Cuomo at Brooklyn College fate would have me teaching in the neighborhood of Holliswood Queens, the same neighborhood the Cuomos had called home. In 2001 with my third-grade students sitting all around me ready to hear our read-aloud portion of the day I began sharing The Blue Spruce written by a man telling a tale from his childhood. The boy learns from his father that the dream is only lost when you give up. He learned it from his father Andrea, an Italian immigrant who owned and ran a grocery store with his wife Immaculata. That boy, of course, was Mario Cuomo. They like my immigrant grandparents owned a business and worked seven days a week never taking a vacation. Their hard work was for the family and the future generation to come.

It is a tender children's book of a boy who moves from living in an apartment in a poor neighborhood to his family's first house in a middle-class neighborhood. Mario tells the story of the beautiful Blue Spruce tree that grew proudly in front of his home. A home Andrea Cuomo bought with savings earned from his hard work with an unwavering obligation to his family he realized the beginning of the American Dream. One night in a thunderstorm the tree in front of the house was uprooted. It was sure to die. Andrea Cuomo insisted that his son help him put the huge tree back in the ground in the middle of the driving cold rain and harsh winds.

The Blue Spruce survived, and young Mario learned a lesson that carried him through difficult times by reminding him to never give up on a dream. I treasure the memory of reading the book to my students for the first time, imagining Andrea Cuomo's accent and reading in my best imitation of what I thought he sounded like. Andrea yelled to Mario as they replanted the tree, "Push 'em up son!, Push 'em up!" The tree survived. Andrea gave his son these guiding words about the dreams he would hold dear to him, "You wait and you wait and you never give up." My students loved the story, and I loved reading it to them and we created art projects connected to the book. I shared the book with my principal, Dr. Joan Cincotta Weingarten. She was a stellar educational leader. The Holliswood School under her leadership consistently ranked at the top of NYC schools. It touched me when she returned the book with a note of gratitude saying it made her cry. Joan knew too as a daughter of immigrants the courage and strength it required to go through life and she understood the value of education in America. Her parents sacrificed for her and watched her get a doctorate and become the principal of the wonderful Queens school.

Rereading The Blue Spruce as I prepared to write this column a precious memory came to mind. I had been taking a route to work from my Long Island home which had me passing the Blue Spruce every day, but not knowing it was indeed the tree Mario wrote about. Upon discovering this after researching facts about the book for my students, I felt blessed by the energy Mario and Andrea put into saving that special tree with loving hands. After my discovery, I would slow down slightly passing it and smile seeing it was tall and alive as ever.

A few years later, I made another discovery. One of my students lived in the house originally owned by Andrea and Immaculata, and was taking care of the tree. We celebrated knowing that she and her family were taking care of the Mario Cuomo tree. Maya, her siblings, and parents were so proud and honored to be the new owners of that house. The last page of my copy of The Blue Spruce has a note written on it, "I love being your student. I will really miss you in third grade. I love you, Ms. Passarella. From the girl that lives with the Blue Spruce, that girl is me Maya."

I read the book every year to my students throughout my career teaching in Queens until my last year at the Holliswood School. At the end of 2014, I retired early from teaching for the City of New York due to the fact the arts were consistently being pushed out of education. The message of the book stays with me to this day to never give up on a dream. I am currently a member of the Education Team for The Coltrane Home at Dix Hills. It is an honor and a joy to continue to spread the legacy of the master musician John Coltrane.

Meeting Former Governor Mario Cuomo

In 2009 attending a National Organization of Italian American Women luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, I had the amazing opportunity to speak to Mario Cuomo and tell him the Blue Spruce tree was still alive. He smiled with a fond twinkle that showed me the words touched his heart. "Happy to hear the tree is doing well," he said. I also chatted with Andrew Cuomo who was also in attendance. We exchanged stories about the tree, my student's family and his father's childhood home. He told me that he had recently knocked on the door of the home once owned by his grandfather Andrea, where his father Mario was raised and asked the family if he could see the handmade castles created from small stones which still adorned the garden. The family not only warmly welcomed Andrew into the home, they joyfully allowed Andrew and his brother Christopher Cuomo access to the yard and gifted them the castles. Over the next two days Andrea's grandsons lovingly removed the heavy three castles from the garden. One castle is now with Andrew, one castle is now with Christopher and the other castle is with Matilda the much-loved matriarch of the family.

Life Is Change

On January 1, 2015 my heart was heavy learning about the passing of the great Mario Cuomo. He died just hours after his eldest son was sworn into office for the second time. At 5:15 PM his spirit left his body to ascend. I cried knowing a great man who I looked up to was gone, but I knew too that he left a long legacy of excelsior. Living on NYC's Upper Westside on a bitter morning in January, I traversed Central Park to Madison Avenue and entered the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, and asked to sign the book of condolences before the official wake began for invited guests, and then made my way around the corner to Park Avenue to Saint Ignatius of Loyola Church to pray quietly.

The next day I watched on television, the church filled up with Mario Cuomo's family, friends, admirers, and dignitaries from all over the world. Andrew Cuomo's eulogy made it clear his father was not done, as the father seemed to live in the son. Mario Cuomo believed we the people should continue to complete God's work, and make America the country that continues to grow and rise. He expressed tender guidance to his precious grandchildren in a letter they cherish. It included the following sentiment which can be shared with children across the nation. "If one does what one can to make things better, that's all God will ask. It's a job you can work at every minute that you live and it's a job that can make your life worth living no matter what else happens." Perhaps, if we all engage deeply in the never-ending struggle to continue to grow the most beautiful country of our dreams American children will live in love and freedom far into the future.

Lessons Learned

John Coltrane like Mario Cuomo had personal philosophies which were beacons of illumination, and foundations of nourishment for their souls. Their beliefs lived in love of the divine and the precious miracle of life. John Coltrane said, "I believe that it's up to individuals, each man, to know himself in order for it to really be a better world." When asked what was the first thing he wanted to express to people John stated, "I would say love, first and to strive, second. Although they are together in some kind of way...The love that holds the universe together." He expresses his ideas through his horn and Cuomo through his executive leadership service. "We are the sons and daughters of giants, and because we were born to their greatness, we are required to achieve," Mario Cuomo said. Both men, continue to lead humanity through the way they lived in A Love Supreme which would touch people in their lifetimes and spiritually right now in this present moment in which we yearn for the embrace of greatness to help save this earth for our children and generations of children we will never know.

Photo Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo


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