Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks on Signing the Columbus Day Proclamation

October 09, 1981

Ladies and gentlemen, we are here for the signing of the proclamation with regard to Columbus Day. And I am delighted that here on the platform with us, we have the Italian Ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Rinaldo Petrignani; Ambassador Jose Llado, the Spanish Ambassador to the United States—I think that we, all of us, understand the connection between Spain and Italy with regard to Columbus Day- [laughter] —Frank D. Stella, the president of the National Italian American Foundation; Donald J. Senese, president of Amerito, who is also our Assistant Secretary of Education; Anthony Giampapa, vice president of UNICO; and Mr. Aldo Caira, president of the Sons of Italy.

You know, just the other day, I learned that the Marine Band is known as the President's own, and it makes me very proud to be able to say that, because it is one of the great concert bands of the world. But it also has some Italian blood in its background. Apparently, Thomas Jefferson was not pleased with the Marine Band that he found at the White House when he arrived as President. Jefferson told the Marine Commandant that he should look for musicians in Italy, which was noted then, as now, for its musical talent. The Commandant, taking Mr. Jefferson's remarks as an order, sent a representative to Italy, where the fellow persuaded Italian musicians of all ages to join the Marines and return with him to America. [Laughter] And this Italian excellence has been the standard for the band ever since. And I can tell you that even after 183 years, the band hasn't lost its Italian love and heart for music.

Incidentally, that same search continues to later days. I knew a man in Hollywood, when I was there, who was an actor only long enough to save money so that he could study for his chosen career, which was opera. And having enough money, he left Hollywood and went to Milan, Italy. And there he studied for 2 years and finally received that great honor—was invited to sing at La Scala, the very spiritual fountainhead of opera. They were doing Pagliacci, and he sang the very beautiful aria, Vesti la guibba, and when he had finished singing the applause from the orchestra seats and the galleries and the balconies was so sustained and so thunderous, that they couldn't continue the opera until he stepped back and repeated the aria as an encore. And again, the same sustained and thunderous applause, and again, he sang Vesti la guibba. And finally, he motioned for quiet. And he said, "I have sung Vesti la guibba now nine times." He said, "My voice is gone. I cannot sing it again." And a voice from the balcony said, "You'll do it till you get it right." [Laughter]

But if I had thought of all of this sooner, I would have had that Marine Band come to play for us today, because we really should have music, because this is not just a solemn proclamation signing. It's a celebration of what the great mariner, Christopher Columbus, accomplished. And in recent years, Columbus Day has also become a day to celebrate what Italian Americans have accomplished.

Columbus is symbolic of the millions of Italians who have come to the New World since its discovery. They, too, possessed courage, and they, too, sought opportunity and endured hardship. For many, their journey was just as personally demanding as the one that Columbus undertook. I remember John Volpe telling me that it took his parents 6 weeks to cross the Atlantic in steerage, and all they had was a battered suitcase when they arrived.

Our immigrant ancestors worked long and hard. They adhered to solid, decent values, and they consequently prospered. Today, if it were not for a rightful pride of heritage, there would be no reason to identify Italian Americans as any kind of separate ethnic group, for Italian Americans are integrated into every aspect of American life—business, labor, arts, the professions, as well as high posts in this administration. Indeed, time would not permit me to list those who are here as a part of this administration.

And I'm going to sign the proclamation now, but as I sign it, I am commemorating not only the great navigator and explorer, Christopher Columbus, but those who centuries later followed him to the New World and helped make this the great nation that it is today.

Note: The President spoke at 1:45 p.m. at the signing ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks on Signing the Columbus Day Proclamation Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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