My Italian adventure

This story begins 50 years ago in the summer of 1967 when Dennis Kato ’69 and I spent two and one-half months crisscrossing our way across Europe from London to Athens.  We visited cities as large as Paris, Rome, and Berlin, to small unheard of villages like Valenzano, Italy. My father emigrated from Valenzano in 1939 at age 19—the age I was when I arrived.

Joe Campanelli ’69, Lella Labellarte, and Trish Searls Campanelli ’72
Joe Campanelli ’69, Lella Labellarte, and Trish Searls Campanelli ’72

My Aunt Christine gave me the name and address of her aunt and uncle there, the Labellartes. They treated Dennis and me so well that we stayed for four weeks. During that time we got to know other young people who were thrilled to meet us, because not many tourists visit Valenzano. In particular, we became friends with brothers Nick and Tony DiNinno, spending the days talking, going to the beach, attending a few parties, and just strolling down main street.

In 1971, a year after Trish Searls Campanelli ’72 and I were married, we traveled to Valenzano, where I hoped to reconnect with our friends. The Labellartes hosted us, but Nick and Tony were in the military and only one girl we knew was still there. I planned to return in a few years, but before I knew it 46 years had passed.   

About two years ago I decided it was time to return. Before I did, though, I wanted to learn basic Italian. I had minored in French at Cornell and was inspired by professors Mihailo and Emiljia Mihailovic, Eugene Elkins, and Marie Pecile for challenging me to learn language within a rich cultural context. I enrolled in a two-week language session in Florence and lived with a host family to immerse myself in the Italian culture. Then Trish and I made our way to Valenzano. Once there we approached the Labellartes’ door, but it was boarded up, so we stopped in a nearby café. In my best Italian I explained my story and showed photos to the proprietor. While he didn’t recognize the photos or names, I was pleased that I had been able to converse. We decided to knock on the neighbor’s door. A woman cautiously opened a small window to see who we were. I explained my story in Italian showing her some 50-year-old photos, and then a big smile came to the woman’s face and she blurted out, “Joe and Dennis,” moved quickly to open the door, gave me a kiss on both cheeks, hugged me, and told me her name was Lella Labellarte. She was beside herself, acting almost as ecstatic as that 9-year-old little girl of the past, giddy over these two athletic American boys staying with her grandparents. Once again, she graciously hosted us for our stay.

Ultimately, I did much more than reconnect with my 19-year-old self on a summer travel adventure. My Cornell liberal arts training pushed me to experience Italy on a more profound level 50 years later—learning, understanding, and appreciating the Italian language and culture, as well as its warm, friendly people.