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Capt. Louis Cavaliere: A life spent in service to others


By Barbara Ann Zippi-Och

Retired Capt. Louis Cavaliere was in the Navy for 25 years, serving on ships deployed to the Mediterranean, East Africa, the Middle East and Indian Ocean. He is vice chairman and former chairman of the Chapel of the Four Chaplains, a memorial at the Philadelphia Navy Yard to four Navy chaplains who gave away their life jackets to save the lives of sailors aboard the SS Dorchester in World War II.

Q: What are your Italian roots in Italy?
A: My paternal grandparents, who lived with us, immigrated around 1900, grandmother was a tessitore or weaver from Angri and grandfather a laborer from Corbara, Provincia di Salerno near Naples adjacent to Pompeii. They immigrated because of the promise of a better life. My grandmother (16) immigrated with her sister (18) riding steerage class on SS Patria because life was too hard and hungry in Campania with $25 from their brother who sent for them from New York City. My maternal grandparents immigrated from Sassano in the same region close to Vallo di Diano.
Q: What life lesson did you learn from your Italian ancestors?
A: That a strong character is essential to good living. I learned that love, loyalty, dignity, tolerance and respect were all very important.
Q: What Italian traditions do you keep in your household?
A: Life at home centered around the kitchen with homemade pasta almost every Sunday. We continue the tradition with my children and grandchildren on holidays along with baking bread. Growing up we ate simple peasant dishes consisting of escarole, beans and lentils. It was wonderful. Still is.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: In a tight Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn called Lower Park Slope, now gentrified and called Gowanus, with no American friends until high school. Life centered around the National Italian Church, founded by Italian immigrants through Franciscan Friars from Italy, because the other Catholic Church up the street did not welcome Italians, who were relegated to sit in the balcony.
Q: How did you come about joining the Navy?
A: Growing up in that tight neighborhood in Brooklyn was rewarding and built character, but very limiting. It was expected I attend St. John’s College in Brooklyn. Wanting to see the world, I joined the Navy Reserve Officer Candidate program in my junior year. I stuck out like an oddity, not many Italian Americans in the Navy Officer Corps, but I was determined to show the boys from Princeton and Yale that I was just as good as them. I ended up spending a total of 25 years on active and inactive duty. It was the best thing that I ever did, and it led to my career after the Navy with a civilian ocean transportation company.
I did end up seeing most of the world serving on ships deployed to the Mediterranean, East Africa, the Middle East and Indian Ocean. In 1991 during the First Gulf War I was a convoy commodore bringing equipment to Kuwait.
My most significant accomplishment was landing Marines ashore, usually under the cover of darkness, on the east coast, the Mediterranean and the Philippines. I got them all back safely onboard. I do not know how I would live if we lost some of those marines! Semper Fi!!!
Q: How are you spending your retirement years?
A: Retiring from Keystone Shipping in 2013, I got a call from the Chapel of Four Chaplains to help out their dire financial situation. Being back in the Navy Yard would feel like coming home and helping veterans on many levels of issues felt more like a calling that all my life’s experience prepared me for up to that point.
Q: What is The Chapel of the Four Chaplains?
A: There are four programs because Four Chaplains gave up their life jackets and went down on the SS Dorchester in World War II.  1. Legion of Honor which recognizes ordinary people who do extraordinary things. 2. Youth Scholarship essay and art contest to educate youth on the Four Chaplains story. 3. Emergency Chaplains Program sending chaplains into crises, (Ground Zero, for example), and conducting training for first responder chaplains all over the country. 4. Our Veterans outreach program provides help for veterans in crises or just needing help, in areas of homelessness, joblessness, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress and more.
Q: You have a new addition to the grounds.
A: When a person dies at sea, there is no cemetery, so people come here instead. It was a great honor to receive a unique gift of an anchor from the Italian Navy ship Amerigo Vespucci. The memorial Ai caduti in mare, to those who have been lost at sea, also honors those who been anchors in our lives ad was erected by Italian stone masons from South Philadelphia. People may donate a brick naming their loved one around the base.
Q: Who is your favorite person?
A: Besides writing one of the world’s most popular hymns “Amazing Grace,” Captain John Newton, a Royal Navy Sea Captain of a slave ship during the slave trade of the late 1700s, saw the error of chattel slavery, so he left the Navy to become an Anglican (Episcopal) priest. He was responsible for encouraging William Wilberforce to lead the movement in Parliament to abolish slave trade in the British Empire in 1806! Now that was huge!
Q: How did you come to make limoncello every year?
A: My grandmother, always sending me to buy flavoring, made anisette and my grandfather, wine and grappa, so I wanted to make something. I love and cook with lemons and oranges so I chose limoncello which I really like.
Q: And, is it Gravy or Sauce?
A: Gravy every Sunday and Thursday loaded with meatballs, sausages, braciole and pork fat. Still my favorite meal minus the pig skin!

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