History: John A. Volpe, Italian Immigrant to Wakefield, Became Governor of Massachusetts
In anticipation of the upcoming Festival Italia this weekend, it is fitting to reflect upon a brief biography of the man who is Wakefield’s most illustrious Italian-American native.
On November 13, 1905, Vito and Filomena (Benedetto) Volpe left their native Pescosansonesco, in the Abruzzi region of Italy, and sailed to the United States to find a new home for their family. They had been married only three months when they first came to Boston’s North End. Vito began work as a hod carrier, but quickly became a skilled brick layer and construction worker. By 1907, they had saved enough money to buy a house. They moved to their new home on Water Street in Wakefield.
On December 8, 1908, John Anthony Volpe was born at the family’s Water Street home. The first of six children, John started school as a first grader at the Lincoln School on Crescent Street. Because the family spoke only Italian at home, John had difficulty understanding his teachers and classmates but within a year, his English was fluid and he had acclimated into school. In 1916, the family left Wakefield to live in an apartment in Malden.
After graduating from Malden High School, John Volpe went to work for his father and other construction companies as a laborer. He attended Wentworth Institute, graduating in 1930 as an architectural construction student.
After graduation, he found work as an assistant superintendent of construction, but his new job was short-lived as the nation entered the Great Depression. Ever ambitious and resourceful, John Volpe and a friend began their own construction company, Grande & Volpe, in March of 1933.
The following year, John married his childhood sweetheart Jennie Benedetto of Water Street. The wedding was held at St. Joseph’s Church. The couple would be married for 60 years.
Grande & Volpe disbanded, but John Volpe stayed in business with his own construction company, building not homes but large projects, like apartment complexes, churches, schools, offices and police stations.
In 1944, with the arrival of World War II, John Volpe joined the Navy and went to work training See Bees in construction. Just two years later, he had attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
With the conclusion of the war, he resumed his construction company, building huge projects like the $4 million addition to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. So successful was his business that he opened branch offices in Washington DC and Miami Florida, along with an Italian firm in Rome.
With his career and business well developed, John Volpe decided to pursue a political career. He had been considering running for office for years – in fact he had run an unsuccessful campaign for the School Committee in Malden in the 1930s. He became the deputy chairman of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee in 1951, working for the election of President Eisenhower and Governor Christian A. Herter. By 1952, he was considered a serious contender for the office of Lieutenant Governor. He formally entered public life when he was appointed by Governor Christian Herter as a Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Works in 1953. Most of his $15,000 annual salary was donated to charity. In 1956, he entered the national stage when President Eisenhower appointed him the Interim Federal Highway Administrator. Serving in that position for several months, he was the first federal highway administrator at the federal Bureau of Public Roads.
In 1960, with a campaign slogan of “Vote the Man, Vote Volpe,” he successfully ran for Governor in Massachusetts. He lost his bid for a second consecutive term in 1962 to democrat Endicott Peabody, but defeated Francis X. Bellotti to win re-election 1964. In 1966 he won a landslide victory, this time for a four-year term.
While in office, Governor Volpe actively worked to establish unemployment benefits and to establish more housing for senior citizens and low-income families. He signed legislation to ban racial imbalances in the commonwealth’s schools, and re-organized the state’s Board of Education. He worked toward eradicating conflicts of interest by state legislators. He also established the first state sales tax in Massachusetts.
In 1968, John Volpe was on the short list as one of three serious contenders to be Richard Nixon’s running mate. He left the governorship early in order to assume the position of the United States Secretary of Transportation. In this position, he worked to improve air traffic safety; and to establish the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. He championed the Federal Interstate Highway System; and he was instrumental in the establishment of Amtrak. His Alcohol Safety Action Project dealt with drunken drivers and helped the drastically reduce highway fatalities nationwide.
Appointed Ambassador to Italy from 1972 - 1976, John Volpe was the first Italian American to hold that position. He and his wife returned from Italy in 1977, and settled in Nahant. He died on November 1, 1994, survived by his wife Jenny, son John A. Volpe, Jr., and daughter Jean Volpe Rotondi. He is buried at Forest Glade Cemetery in Wakefield.
John Volpe is remembered fondly in his hometown. A plaque has been placed on the Water Street home of his birth; the Wakefield High School Library has been named the Volpe Library in his honor; the Volpe Archives at WHS is devoted to a special collection of John Volpe’s papers, photographs and memorabilia.