I was born in Palermo, Sicilia, on July 12, 1966; we lived in the little town of Gangi. My dad, mom, her mother Giose and her father Giacomo and I traveled 11 days by boat to the United States of America. We arrived just in time to celebrate my second birthday at the port of New York on July 12, 1968.
Our original stay was brief, and we returned to Gangi for about a year where I attended kindergarten. When I turned 6, my dad Pepe (Giuseppe) committed to pursuing the American Dream. We returned to the states and settled in South Philly, this time for good.
I repeated kindergarten, which turned out to be a great confidence-builder. At first, I didn’t know how to speak “American,” so attending school here was difficult, in more ways than one – ways that I now use to serve my community. When I interact with fellow immigrants (from all different cultures) my experience really informs how to best serve them. I relate to how they feel and what they’re going through, trying to embrace our culture while remembering and honoring their original. When it’s helpful, I share my father’s words of wisdom: “Remain open and understanding while navigating this new world. Expand out and experience this melting pot! One of the greatest opportunities America gives you is the opportunity to learn from all cultures and ethnic groups.”
Although we spoke Italian at home, my parents declared learning English and assimilating into American culture the priority for this next leg of our journey, so I studied English both in classes and with tutors. I remember the kids playing at the playground while I was in summer school.
I had responsibility at a young age and had to be home doing my homework and getting ready for dinner by 4 p.m. When I came home without my bookbag one day at the end of the school year in June, dad asked “Where are your books? Learning never stops. You can always learn something.”
Dad used his remarkable millwork carpentry skills here in the U.S. crafting exquisite architectural woodwork design for banks, casinos, and high-end retail stores. My mom Giuseppina was a specialty seamstress, what they called an “invisible weaver.” She did all her work with a magnifying glass, truly an art.
We always cooked. We didn’t get food delivered to the house, and you went to restaurants only on special occasions. That’s the way I grew up. My lunch was very different from what the other kids brought to school. It could be chicken cutlet one day, pasta the next. We did finally adopt pizza on Fridays (which became OK once my kids were born and dad became a nonno). And Sunday was for church and dinner at 1 p.m. Easter or Christmas was a big production, a foundational tradition. Twenty to 30 people somehow fit in a small house, around tables pulled together in a crowd that worked hard and supported each other. You can’t forget that was special.
The summer of freshman year in high school, I received a great work opportunity. One requirement was citizenship, so I became a U.S. citizen in 1986.
My dad would always remind me to “surround myself with people that are better than me, that’s how you’ll learn.” He said “service is significant, remember the people that helped you, and pay that forward. Helping others – that is the definition of success. People will remember how you made them feel.”
He’s right. I can’t forget the most amazing mentors that coached me in life and in my career. They’re just amazing individuals and I do my best to pay their insights forward to the next generation.
America is great because there’s so much opportunity. You can come here, educate yourself, do great things and become an entrepreneur. Imagine it! An immigrant guy from South Philly that couldn’t speak English is helping small business owners, and to develop the city. This is the American Dream!
Sicily is great because of the people and their quality of life. It’s a different pace in Italy, you work to live. As a connector bridge in life and work, it’s about respecting where you are, learning the values and bringing the best of both worlds to the table.
Fourteen years ago my wife Pina and I introduced our children to Gangi to make sure they saw where we come from. The kids marveled at the cobblestone streets in the tiny town with so many neighbors that knew their names. “Wow dad, everyone knows us here!” We have two beautiful kids carrying the torches – Joseph is an accountant at BDO and Annalise just graduated Thomas Jefferson University with a degree in fashion merchandising and is enrolled at Jean Madeline pursuing a beauty career.
Yes, the bedrock traditions don’t go away – we make the recipe for sauce handed down over the years. I make wine, I really enjoy my vegetable garden. Yesterday I made cannolis from scratch and when February is cold enough, we get together and make soppressata (“supersod”).
We’re proving the dreams possible as we honor the past, where we come from, the culture and the people that help us get here. And I like to remember along the way to pay it forward, heeding dad’s sage advice: “Remember how you make people feel. They’ll never forget that.”
Salvatore J. Patti is Senior Vice President-Director of Commercial Banking & Wealth at WSFS for Philadelphia and New Jersey. He lives in Philadelphia with his family and serves his community from various boards including as Chairman of the Board of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.
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