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Leader of heritage council puts heart into work, family and community

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By Ken Mammarella

Al DeGennaro appreciates, exemplifies and perpetuates the goal of his grandparents, who emigrated from Italy to America “to provide better lives for themselves and opportunities for their children.”

“The family prizes hard work, and I’m very proud of that fact,” said DeGennaro, who lives in Penn Valley (Lower Merion), Pennsylvania, with his wife, Marisa. He is deputy general counsel for J.P. Mascaro & Sons, in Audubon, and he has worked at the family-owned waste management company for 32 years. Marisa is a dual citizen of the United States and Italy, with her mother’s family from Puglia. Son Christopher is a lawyer. Daughter Katie is an online physical fitness professional.

He ticked off key elements of his Old World ethic: Do the best you can do. Education is important. Ordinary effort yields ordinary results, and extraordinary effort yields extra-ordinary results. And follow this belief: “Your word is your bond.”

He’s not all about work. “I have pride in my heritage,” he said. He’s taught himself some Italian and has visited Italy three times. In Montgomery County, he leads the Americans of Italian Heritage Council, which organizes the Columbus Cup (golf, bocce and lots of Italian food) in October and a Feast of the Seven Fishes in December, and the new Christopher Columbus Monument Committee.

His paternal grandparents were from Abruzzi and Sicily, his maternal grandparents from Basilicata. He was born in Altoona, studied at Penn State and Temple and moved to Montgomery County for a job as assistant district attorney. He fell in love with the area. “I’m comfortable around my kind of people.”

When asked about his favorite foods, DeGennaro was all about Italy: his mother’s lasagna (and she’s still making it at age 90), quickly followed by spaghetti and meatballs that his wife makes, tiramisu, cioccolato gelato, cannoli and sfoglaitelle from the Collegeville Italian Bakery.

Although his daughter’s recent wedding featured an American menu, he made sure to include one memorable Italian feature: His own performance on the accordion of “That’s Amore.”

The council was founded in early 1980s to promote Italian Americans who had been “kept out of the political system, and elective and appointed offices,” he said. “It was a WASPy, blue-blood place, and Italian Americans were not included. I’m proud to say that we succeeded in helping Italian Americans get elected to various offices in the county.”

In the early 2000s, the council began the Columbus Cup. It has run most years at the Bellewood Country Club, which Vince Piazza and Charles Tornetta created after buying an estate near Pottstown in 1998.

The event starts with breakfast pizzas, wedding soup, hoagies and other Italian specialties, moves over to golf and bocce and returns to the clubhouse for an Italian wine bar, antipasto bar, more Italian food and a featured entree that changes each year. This year, the 17th cup, featured pasta e ceci.

The council’s Feast of Seven Fishes is Dec. 16 at Presidential Caterers in Norristown, with owner Gus Mandracchia making sure it upholds the Italian Christmas Eve culinary tradition.

Council membership is by invitation only, and DeGennaro suggested that people interested in the council or the feast should contact him at al.degennaro@jpmascaro.com.

Frank Arcade, the Columbus Cup’s dinner and golf chairman, said the event helps “remind people of all the good things associated with our Italian heritage.” Columbus, who was born in Genoa, “had the courage to go against conventional wisdom and set out on a historic journey in three tiny boats.”

Columbus is also celebrated in Norristown’s Elmwood Park by a monument proposed in the 1920s, but the money raised instead went to help the poor, DeGennaro said. Nationally acclaimed architect Al Panepinto, who died earlier this year, designed a monument with a compass, a half-globe, fountains and a model of the Santa Maria. It was dedicated on Oct. 12, 1992.

DeGennaro led this year’s Columbus Day celebration at the monument. The new committee intends to maintain it and perhaps expand how often the monument can be used throughout the year. Also offering support on the committee are members from the Holy Saviour Club, the Knights of Columbus, the Madonna del Soccorso di Sciacca and the Sons and Daughters of Italy LAM Lodge 1776.

At the 25th anniversary of the monument’s dedication, then-state Rep. Kate Harper said “Italian Americans have become one of the commonwealth’s most influential ethnic groups, with deep roots in religion, politics, arts, science, law and economic and social institutions.” There are 1.4 million Americans of Italian heritage in Pennsylvania, she added.

Yet today, Columbus needs support, too. The Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, for example, replaced Columbus Day with Juneteenth as an observed county holiday.

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