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A Brief History of Nutley UNICO

by Dr. Frank Cocchiola, Jr., Past President

A group of concerned Nutley men first met in 1953 to discuss ways to develop Italian-American pride and concern for equity.   They called their group the “Columbus Civic Club of Nutley” and met at 351 Passaic Ave. The men who were responsible for the genesis of our chapter included   people like Dr. Robert Citrino, the first president of the Columbus Civic Club, which lasted until 1958; Larry Varone, the Columbus Civic Club’s fourth president, who followed my dad, Frank Sr. in that role and then became the first president of the Nutley Chapter of UNICO National in 1959.  The inaugural UNICO dinner was held on Oct. 10, 1959 and was chaired by Frank Cocchiola Sr.  The signature page of the original UNICO National Charter application signed on August 12, 1959 includes the names of 53 men whose influence on our town and on many of us personally is still felt today, among them Citrino, Samara, Orechio, Viola, Biondi, Negra, Ritacco, Zinicola, and Cocchiola to mention just a few. 

Today Nutley UNICO is one of the largest chapters in the nation, and in 2002 we were recognized by UNICO National as the Model Chapter in the nation.  Our history is more than just dates and events; it is the story of the men, and for the past decade, the women who have made this group significant in our community.  In 2009 -10 we will meet under the leadership of our first female president, Marie Lucarella Solimo.  Our legacy is in the story of  the people who impacted the club over the past 50 years, people like: Gerard Tolve and Sam Battaglia who spearheaded the initiative to provide the Columbus  statue in front of Nutley Town Hall in 2000; and Frank Cocchiola Sr. and Jim Piro, who coordinated the first Brian Piccolo scholarship breakfast in 1994;  and Al Ficocello, who chaired the Columbus Quincentenial program in 1992 that included the first of several performance by the renowned operas star Jerome Hines; and Mario Di Maggio, our resident parliamentarian and perennial representative at the UNICO National convention;  and Steve Mairella, a Past President who was a scholarship recipient in 1974, and who also served as UNICO National Secretary; and the Scarpelli family, including Past President Dr. Joe Scarpelli and tonight’s honoree, Peter Scarpelli; and the Sposato family, including our current President, Tom, and his dad Jim, who was President from 1967 – 69; and our UNICO National award winners, including Dr. Vincent Grasso,  a Marconi Award winner, Anthony Buccino, a William Paca Americanism Award winner, Dan Geltrude, an Ella Grasso Literary Award winner; and, of course, all of our local and National scholarship winners.     

The UNICO motto is Service above Self.  Our organization believes in this creed and exhibits this through our national and local donations to causes that over the years have included earthquake relief funds sent to Torella Dei Lombardi in 1980 during the presidency of Potito (“Pat”) D’Antuono; annual contributions to  UNICO National causes like the Jimmy V Fund and Cooley’s Anemia research, as well as numerous local contributions to assist those in need within our own community; and, of course, our major commitment to education in the form of support for Italian Studies chairs at various universities, most notably Seton Hall and Montclair State, and our local scholarships that this year totaled $27,600, several of them sponsored by individual members in honor of their families and parents, names like Battaglia, Scavone, Ritacco, Kelly and Geltrude.

On June 29, 1961 one of our Charter Members, Carmen Orechio, said that “There is no room in the organization for anyone who wasn’t ready to be of service”, and “that it is time we were ready to stand up and be counted”.   The founders of Nutley UNICO did stand up and we are still standing today in celebration of our Italian-American heritage and ethnicity.  Our future is every bit as bright as our past!